By Emma Young
In 1750, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Since then, plenty of research has proven him right: we’re not much good at knowing ourselves and, sadly, we’re especially bad when it comes to judging traits in ourselves that we care about the most. Now Stefan Leach and Mario Weick at the University of Kent, Canterbury, have added to this sorry picture of human delusion, reporting in Social Psychological and Personality Science that people who believe they’re intuitive are no better than anyone else at tasks that require intuition.
Leach and Weick recruited 178 students who completed the Preference for Intuition Scale (which asks respondents to indicate how much they agree or disagree with statements like “With most decisions, it makes sense to completely rely on your feelings”). Some also completed the Faith in Intuition Scale (which includes statements such as “I believe in trusting my hunches”).
Then the participants completed a task that involved copying out several non-sensical strings of between two and four letters. Unbeknown to the participants, there were complex rules that determined the ordering of these letter strings. After this, they were told that the strings all adhered to hidden grammatical rules and their next challenge was to use their “gut feelings” to decide whether new strings of letters adhered to the rules or not (in these kinds of tasks, implicit learning is thought to manifest consciously as “vague feelings” – intuitions – about what’s going on, though the individual can’t express what their new knowledge actually is).
After making their judgments, the participants answered questions designed to probe their confidence in their intuitions, how well they thought they did on the task, how much effort they put in, and the extent to which they felt they relied on intuition to decide if a sequence of letters was “correct” or not.
Leach and Weick also ran another study, involving 222 people, which used rules governing the ordering of pictures of people rather than letters. These volunteers also completed a scale exploring their belief in the importance of intuition and their self-rated intuitive abilities before the task, and they answered post-test questions about how well they thought they’d done.
The analysis of all this new data, as well as some data collected previously, showed that whether a participant considered him or herself to be intuitive or not had no bearing on their performance at judging the letter strings, or their grasp of the rules. When the participants were asked specifically about how confident they were that their particular intuitions regarding this task were accurate, a positive relationship with performance did emerge – but it was very weak.
Earlier studies have found that people who consider themselves to be more intuitive also tend to believe that their intuitions lead to good results, and are useful. So these new findings are likely to come as bad news to them.
One caveat is that this research involved participants using their intuition to make judgments based on recently acquired knowledge. As the authors themselves stress, “the findings … should not be generalised to other facets of intuition, such as the intuitive decision-making of experts.” However, they added that, “it is interesting to note….that studies on expert intuitions often arrive at similar conclusions as the present research.”