Interesting article in the NYTimes about the significance of following hunches for U.S. Soldiers in Iraq. Among various stories of soldiers sensing danger and avoiding traps, are reports on various studies trying to understand how the better soldiers are able to detect these things, when ordinary soldiers do not.
But the kicker for me was this question, raised by one of the scientists regarding the ability for some to detect threats more accurately than others, near the end:
The big question is whether these differences perceiving threat are natural, or due to training, Dr. Paulus said.
This question is a much larger question than just for hunches – most things about behavior are vulnerable to the same nature vs. nurture debate and the answer is almost always both.
I wanted to ask this scientist how he decides what research to do, or how to design specific aspects of the study. Or even how did he decide that this was “the big question?” I’m sure he followed hunches to some degree in the decisions he made in doing his research. Most of what we do in life is hunch based, or at least not scientifically based. It’s uncommon we bother to do much more than follow what our gut feelings suggest we should do.
More interesting perhaps is there is evidence we often do things in opposite fashion. We have a feeling, mostly decide to follow it, and then our higher brains invent various seemingly logical reasons to support what is, essentially a hunch (note: there are studies suggesting this). In other words, we often trick ourselves into merely justifying our hunches, and claim we’ve thought rationally about our decision.
I’m not a brain science expert, but I’ve read much on the subject of decision making, and it seems something else missing from the article is discussion of false positives. We have hunches, certainly about danger, that are wrong all the time. It’s basic survival logic – if you have two creatures, one who is a little paranoid and worries about things that often don’t happen, and one that is totally carefree and fears nothing, the former has higher odds of survival.
I did agree with the article’s emphasis on the importance of emotion. But I’d go even further. Here’s a good quote from the article:
Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings, feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.
Emotions work faster than rational thought in the brain, and its reasonable to assume emotions are at the core of what the Army describes as good survival instincts.
Also see: Should you trust your gut?