The science of hunches?

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?

11 Responses to “The science of hunches?”

  1. Elliot Ross

    Experience also teaches us to match patterns – we see it as a ‘hunch’ – but in reality we quickly (& sub consciously) add up indicators.

    As an example, think how often farmers are better at predicting weather than your local TV weather guy or gal.

    Soldiers have always done that – this track, a little out of place, that bush – maybe bent a bit etc

    Those (again unconsciously) get pattern matched and quickly sound the ‘alert’

    Sure – those ‘discrepancies’ could be natural & they could be safe and completely harmless – but too often – you are correct, and alive

  2. Scott Berkun

    Drew: you’re right. Some creatures are afraid of everything, including things they need to do to find food, so they die.

    My point was only that any creature that has evolved into being like humans have probably has lots of machinery for anticipating dangers. How we handle them is important too, but the machinery is probably there.

  3. Divya

    Any study of hunches has to be biased. People tend to remember those hunches which were proved right, rather than the ones that amounted to nothing.
    This is not to say that there is no such thing as hunches. But they are probably over-rated.

  4. Dan

    I think it’s natural, training, and your awareness.

    Throw a ball unexpectedly at someone and they may completely spaz-out while other’s simply catch it. Having a emotional reaction is natural, but how you react can depend on training.

    Awareness is also a factor. If you didn’t see the ball and believe there’s a chance that it might be a knife, you’ll react a lot differently. If you trust everyone or have no reason to think it’s anything dangerous you may let the ball bounce right off you.

    So the environment where you “hunch” could impact your reaction just as much as anything else.


  5. Scott Berkun

    Dan: I definitely agree with this.

    When I moved to the woods, after living in big cities my whole life, all of my survival/safety instincts were totally wrong and useless. I was terrified of any noise in the dark when walking my dog (despite my heavy-duty Mag-light in hand).

    It took about 6 months for me to get used to the different safety/danger cues of this environment. And I know I’ll never see the woods the same way someone who grew up in them (say a Native American circa 1800) does.

    So yes, good hunches must combine nature, training, and awareness. But also interest: I wanted to get used to living here, so I worked against my instincts to change the ones I could (I even go out without the Mag-lite these days :).

  6. Divya

    Interesting idea. But the issue is emotions are related to past experiences too. So, if I have had a negative experience in a circus, I will be nervous when entering a circus again. But, sometimes, it is not even obvious that we are reacting to an experience from the past. I wonder how much that affects our hunches?

  7. Scott Berkun

    Divya: I seriously believe there can never be a definite scientific answer to your (excellent) question. The science does show how odd our memories are, and that our memory systems alone are incredibly unreliable (See ), add to that our own choices, conscious and subconscious for how to interpret and use memory, and I think it will always be largely mysterious, for the same reasons our personalities, and why any of us decide any of the things we do, are.

  8. PG

    A minor comment on your basic survival logic:

    “if you have two creatures, one who is a little paranoid and worries about things that often don


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