“Intuition can sometimes lead you astray,” said psychology professor Eric Amsel, who mentored two groups of students who studied the subject. “Our research showed that intuition can cause a person to override their use of a formal understanding or a logical approach to a problem.”
In collaboration with physics professor Adam Johnston, Amsel’s student researchers conducted two studies, both involving games of chance. In the first study, recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Development, participants were presented with a choice between two gambles, one having a one in 10 chance of winning and the other having a 10 in 100 chance of winning. They could express a preference for one gamble, the other gamble, or express no preference between the gambles.
An overwhelming number of participants had a preference, and most selected the 10 in 100 option because it intuitively offers more chances to win, despite the odds of the two gambles being mathematically the same.
The participants in the study included math students in middle school, college students taking developmental math, and college students learning statistics. Amsel said the study found no difference between the groups in the tendency to rely on intuitive processes when making gambling judgments. But group differences were apparent when participants asked what a logical, rational, and mathematically sound answer would be on the task. Most of the statistics students could distinguish between their intuitive and a logical task response but most of the middle school students could not.
In a second study, to be published in May in the Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, the researchers found that young adults who could not distinguish between an intuitive and a logical response on the task, 59 percent took part in informal gambling (poker, betting on sports teams, etc.) while 26 percent engaged in formal gambling (casinos, gaming tables, etc.) in the previous year. In contrast, of those participants who could distinguish between intuitive and logical responses, only 28 percent gambled informally and just 12 percent reported going to casinos or gaming tables.
“The group that gambled thought their intuition gave them insight over a random, chance outcome—that they had some measure of understanding and control,” Amsel said.
These findings come at a time when national trends show an increase in gambling among young people, especially college students.
Amsel said not all snap decisions are problematic. If a person becomes an expert in a field, over time she can train her intuition to look at something and figure things out right away. That person has honed her judgment after years and years of evaluation and assessment, allowing for a faster reaction time. This concept is explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 best-seller “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.”
Sometimes, however, intuition can be a problem.
Amsel explained that most people, seeing a coin come up heads five times in a row, will be inclined to say it is more likely to be tails on the next toss, even though the odds remain 50-50.
“The typical person will believe there is an increased chance of it being tails given the frequency of heads,” Amsel said.
The trade off between intuition and rational decision-making may be explained in part by developmental psychology’s dual process theory, Amsel said.
The dual process theory attempts to address irrational judgments and behavior by postulating that two cognitive systems—experiential and analytical—are simultaneously involved in the processing of information. The two processes are viewed as parallel and interact in all cognitive activities from impression formation to decision-making.
The theory challenges the long held assumption that development moves in one direction. As people mature their thought processes become more rational, but they also become more automatic because we develop faster cognitive reaction times. The theory also could explain exceptions to the rule, such as instances when children are more logical than adults.
The dual process theory suggests that individuals develop “metacognitive” abilities to reflect on and regulate the dual processes. These skills allow the person to decide which option to go with in a particular situation. A person with poor metacognitive skills might be more impetuous and rely more on hunches than logic.
Amsel said those skills develop during adolescence and might be a factor in teenage risk-taking. He’s interested in learning more about how people learn to better regulate their dual processes.
“Developing the skills to know when to rely on which process takes time,” Amsel said. “It’s hard to develop the skill to override your intuitive process and ignore that internal voice telling you to ‘do it this way.’”
Ultimately, it’s a matter of finding an effective balance between intuition and an analytical approach.
“There are times when automatic judgments are perfectly appropriate and times when you should inhibit yourself from following them and think through a situation,” Amsel said.
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- Eric Amsel, psychology professor
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