Has ever crossed your mind that with many of your best friends you liked each other from the very first moment you met? Or can you recall situations when you met a person on the road and s/he left you with a bad feeling without being able to understand why? Maybe it’s the way s/he talked or the way s/he walked or the way s/he moved his/her head. I can think of times when from the very beginning I had the optimistic feeling that things were going to work and this is what happened. We call this intuition. Intuition is mostly connected with spirituality. Trained spiritual people are supposed to have great abilities to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason. In spiritual discussions is described as a conscious commonality between earthly knowledge and the higher spiritual knowledge. Anyway, the thing is that when I had these “pinchings” of intuition in every day observations, I was totally sure that there was more in this story than what the spiritual knowledge was describing. Also, I was sure that I am not spiritual but I believe in the great potential of the human brain. At the same time I found incredible the challenge to see if I could train myself to be able to better recognize and explain the meaning of these “pinchings”. Imagine how useful intuition is. It helps you gain valuable information very quickly. You very early understand if a person has a good predisposition towards you. So learning about the mechanics of a situation is the first step to control it.
What has been studied
Carl Jung had started understanding some basic things when in 1921 in his theory of ego described intuition as an “irrational function” opposed by the “rational functions”. He said that is a mostly unconscious mechanism with the purpose to bring forth ideas, images, possibilities, ways out of a blocked situation. The next years scientists dealt with intuition and attached it to quick decision-making but there weren’t many important findings in a neuroscientific level apart from Roger Wolcott Sperry‘s ones that it was an activity in the left hemisphere of the brain.
The whole topic became very popular in 2006 when a journalist from The New Yorker with the name Malcolm Gladwell wrote the best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Even though Gladwell is not a scientist, he is a real genius in combining his incredible amount of knowledge and in finding niches that science hasn’t examined in great depth. So according to Gladwell, Blink is a book about this rapid cognition of making instant but reliable judgements extremely quickly, in a few seconds time. You see, on the one hand our perception can be easily distorted because we are emotionally driven in our actions so the environment stimulates us in several different ways, on the other hand we have really efficient mechanisms on valuing our environment and definitely thin-slicing is one of them. Gladwell used the term thin-slicing to describe the act of finding patterns in short-lived experiences, and then using the pattern to predict a long-term outcome. For example, when you go to the doctor by asking him appropriate questions you can understand if he is competent enough to help you and if he is willing to adapt in your situation. This is the idea that our spontaneous decisions can be even more effective than carefully planned and well investigated ones.
Findings on Intuition
The most important thing is, then, to look for evidence that these gut-feelings really should be analyzed and taken into consideration. In an extraordinary study in 2011 by Nick Rule and Nalani Ambady the participants were asked to rate college year book photos in a variety of dimensions some of which had to do with how powerful the person in the photo seemed to be. These college year photos belonged to people who would later become the top lawyers for nearly the 3/4 of the top 100 law firms in the USA. The study proved that social judgments about how powerful the person looked in college were related to how much profit the person’s low firm made 20 to 50 years later! In another study Ambady and Rosenthal showed that ratings of people who saw three 10 second video clips of a university teacher teaching with no sound and without watching the students could predict the ratings of the teacher in the end of the semester. It seems that they judged if they were energetic, positive, confident etc.
As for the context of relationships and marriage, in an important study in 1999 by the psychologist John Gottman 125 couples were videotaped while they were arguing about an issue in their marriage. Afterwards random participants were invited to rate how much positive and negative emotions they observed in the first 3 minutes of interaction. The results: The independent participants’ social judgements for 3 minutes were able to accurately predict if the couple were divorced 6 years later. And there exist many other experiments, publications and collections of findings (meta-analysis) that support the existence of intuition. People are able to make reliable judgments in less than a minute. Even the sexual orientation could be identified from just a photo in 1/20 of a second (Rule, Ambady, 2008). In a psychological experiment, normal people given fifteen minutes to examine a student’s college dormitory could describe the subject’s personality more accurately than his or her own friends.
Description of the Mechanism
This efficient mechanism was a weapon throughout the human existence that would accurately and instantly predict if the new person we met was a potential threat, a potential mate, a competent leader etc. Thin slices, also, avoid distractions. Our brains do not have the ability to acquire all the information we come across so ways of picking the most useful ones should have been evolved.
Another great psychologist called Daniel Goleman with significant research on interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships describes that brain cells shaped like spindle seem to be the ones that affect the speed of social intuition. Spindle cells have a large bulb at one end and a long, thick extension. They form particular thick connections between the orbitofrontal cortex and the highest part of the limbic system, the anterior cingulate cortex. The latter coordinates our emotions and our body’s response to our feelings and from there the spindle cells are extended. The spindle cells are rich in receptors of serotonin, dopamine and vasopressin which are the most basic regulators of our emotions.
Some neuroanatomists believe that spindle cells are something unique to humans in the sense that all the other primates have at least a thousand times less than us and the rest of the mammalian species don’t contain at all. This is maybe the reason why some people or primates are more socially aware and sensitive than others. One factor is the amount of cells they have. To recapitulate the spindle cells might explain how we can make a snap judgment of “like” or “dislike” milliseconds before we realise exactly what “that” is.
At the same time another part of the brain that is part of the unconscious mind (limbic system), too, called amygdala checks the environmental stimuli automatically to observe any potential threat and put the body in the state of fight or flight. So you can understand that in our first meeting with a person we are wired to be suspicious about his/her intentions in order to recognize potential dangers that may occur. Of course, as I have many times mentioned this mechanism was designed to protect humans in the environment of the jungle where many physical threats were occurring so a super-speed mechanism was needed to favor existence.
Intuition is Rational
- A conscious strategy in which we analyze the situations and use our rational thinking to understand it.
- An unconscious strategy in which our minds work – without our conscious control – to make snap judgments.
But stand for a while. If the above mechanism exists then what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking – it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking”, as Gladwell mentions in an interview.
We humans thin-slice on a regular basis, “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation”. It has to be made clear that the snap judgments aren’t always in line with our ethics or with our conscious judgments about the situation. Our priority is to accept them for what they are and afterwards use them to reach to decisions. Another problem may occur if we listen to our snap decisions in contexts that we have little experience. At that time it is better to consult someone with better knowledge on the subject. For example, people leave injuries unexamined for months because their intuition says that they are not important resulting in making them chronic.
Decision-Making and How Others Judge Us
Of course, these findings prove one more great ability of the human brain. It doesn’t need to be stated that the more we increase our intra personal intelligence the better we can observe the thin slicing. You shouldn’t rationalize your gut feelings towards what you wish to happen. We are talking about automated mechanisms that can only be observed and cannot be affected in the short-term. These are the messages of this super-computer (human brain) which processes all that amount of data and so quickly puts a label on everything. However, we can affect it in the long-term. We can create the environment that will “make” our brain able to come to more subjective decisions. For instance, if a white person is exposed to images of succesful black people there are less chances that he will be making racist judgments.
Good decision-making requires a balance of diligent and instinctive thinking. As a general rule, Gladwell believes that we should rely on our rational judgments when making small decisions (say, when deciding in which restaurant to eat) and rely on our snap judgments when making larger decisions (choosing what house to buy).
Apart from how we form our social judgments now, we have to think that the others make them in a similar way. This means that your first interaction with a person plays a significant role on how your whole relationship with him/her is going to be. Unfortunately, there is never a second chance for a first impression. If you think that you can’t judge a book by its cover, it seems that this isn’t happening. At least if you are able to sincerely observe what your gut says about this cover. As for the context of mating, I feel sorry to say, but the findings are significant. If a person you like has disliked you (even unconsciously) in the beginning of your interaction, if I were you, I would turn away and forget about it. The world has a lot of people and many opportunities. The stories say that love can be created in the long-term. The mothers used to say to their sons and daughters when they were about to marry: ” S/he is going to love you in the long term, little by little”. Well, unfortunately, I doubt that there were any chances…