Cover Story

In just six seconds, people can often glean significant information about a stranger's teaching skills or personality--particularly the stranger's level of extraversion.

So finds social psychologist Nalini Ambady, PhD, when she shows people six-second video clips of strangers in her research.

On the other hand, employers and medical school admissions officers often think that in-person interviews are a good way to learn what they need to know about applicants. But research by psychologist Robyn Dawes, PhD, has demonstrated that factors like education and test scores predict future performance much better than in-person interviews.

These and other researchers, whose work is described in more detail in the following stories, are studying the kind of rapid thought that happens outside of conscious awareness--what's commonly called intuition.

They're trying to find out what the phenomenon we call intuition really is, where it comes from, when it works and when it fails us.

There's no one definition of intuition, so Webster's Dictionary is as good a place as any to start: "The act or process of coming to direct knowledge or certainty without reasoning or inferring."

It's a definition that suggests instinct, a sixth sense--something mystical, even a little magical.

"I think the word 'intuition' is a loaded word--it's loaded with so many negative connotations," says Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker magazine whose book on the subject, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (Little, Brown, 2005), was published in January. The book uses the description "rapid cognition" instead. "We think of intuition as not rigorous, as all about some weird unfathomable emotion. But I take it much more seriously than that," Gladwell says.

Indeed, so do many psychologists. Over the past several decades, they've begun to investigate the science behind intuition, bringing the tools of rationality to investigate a type of cognition that mostly lacks rational thought.

And in the past few years the wave of interest in their findings has swelled: In addition to Gladwell's book, psychologist and writer David Myers, PhD, recently published a book called "Intuition: Its Powers and Perils" (Yale University Press, 2002). And Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, PhD, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on intuitive versus rational thought and its impact on economic decision-making.

Overall, those researchers are finding that unconscious thought processes powerfully determine many aspects of our life, from how we perceive and react to other people (see page 54) to how we make moral decisions.

"I've always been struck by how we go out of our way to help people make good rational decisions," says Robin Hogarth, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, who recently published the book "Educating Intuition" (University of Chicago Press, 2001). "Yet most of the decisions we make are small ones, based on these rapid cognitions."

Research old and new

Of course, fascination with the unconscious mind is nothing new for psychologists. "But what we're talking about today is not Freud's unconscious, seething with aggression and sexuality," says Myers. "Instead, what we're interested in is presumptions and perceptions and beliefs that are more or less instantaneous, rather than derived and reasoned."

In the 1970s, University of Massachusetts psychologist Seymour Epstein, PhD, developed his "cognitive experiential self theory." In it, he points out that human beings process information through two systems: Just as we learn things consciously all the time--the cognitive part of the theory--we also learn things experientially, without realizing we've learned them.

"Intuition is just the things we've learned without realizing we've learned them. And sometimes they're useful. Sometimes they're maladaptive," Epstein says.

For example, he says, a person who's learned through past experiences to like and trust other people might have very different social intuitions than someone who's learned to fear and distrust others.

So intuition can be useful in the right circumstances, many researchers say. Useful intuitions, like some of those Ambady studies, might allow us to accurately navigate the social world. Or, says Hogarth, they might allow us to drive a car--after all, an automatic skill like driving is something that we learn to do, eventually, without conscious awareness.

But intuition can also lead us astray: For example, as Dawes demonstrated, interviewers generally think they can better predict a candidate's future job performance through a meeting than through evaluating test scores and grades--but research has shown reliance on intuition can backfire in this situation (see page 58). And people's implicit and automatic associations about groups--like racial or ethnic groups--can lead to biases that feel like "intuitions" about individual members of the group (see page 64).

As psychologists have dug deeper into this "offstage thought," as Myers calls it, the number of areas of study related to it has multiplied.

John Bargh, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Yale University, calls it "automatic processing"--automatic influences on psychological and behavioral processes.

"Subliminal priming, implicit memory, implicit priming, emotional processing, nonverbal communication, studies of thin slices of behavior...all of these are active areas of research, and they all have to do with intuition," Myers says.

And people outside of psychology are beginning to take notice of this research. A conference last July at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., for example, focused on "intuitive policing"--both the positive and negative aspects of security personnel relying on intuition in their line of work.

Practical applications

So now that we know intuition can both help and hinder, what do we do? Hogarth advises us to "educate" our intuitions--make sure that the feedback we receive when we make decisions is good.

For example, he's found that emergency room physicians--whose job is to provide immediate care for patients and then send those patients home or pass them on to another doctor--receive very little feedback about the patients' eventual fate. Their on-the-job intuition might be improved, he says, if a hospital set up a system to report back to these physicians the outcome of at least some of their cases.

Alternatively, or in addition, we could change our environment to suit what we know about how our intuition works, says Gladwell. The key is to recognize when our rapid cognitions and unconscious biases are likely to be in control of our behavior, and then make the necessary changes in our environment to deal with that. For example, he says, orchestra directors used to be able to see musicians play when the musicians were auditioning--and the directors chose mostly male musicians. When they began holding blind auditions, with a screen between the judges and the judged, then the number of women chosen began to rise.

In Gladwell's view, then, the key question is how to figure out when and where these adjustments are necessary, and what they might entail.

To do so wouldn't be easy, he says, "but I have enormous faith in the ingenuity of psychologists."