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The Perils of Strong Intuitions

Marketers ought to take careful stock of intuition’s persistence. Sometimes our gut is right. But even when it’s not, it can be difficult to override.

Steve Jobs once said that “intuition is more powerful than intellect.”  But can it be too powerful?

New research conducted by YCCI’s Shane Frederick and coauthor Andrew Meyer (from CUHK) shows that intuitions not only can be wrong, but that erroneous intuitions become “calcified” and prevent discovery of the truth, even among those who do reflect.

The work focuses on the first and most discussed item from Shane’s “Cognitive Reflection Test” or CRT, a 3-item test intended to measure someone’s tendency to reflect upon – and if necessary, override – intuitive responses which nearly all share.  This item – the “bat & ball” problem is below:

A bat and a ball cost $110 in total. The bat costs $100 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

The intuitive response here is “of course” $10, and that is, by far, the most common answer, though a minority can reject this intuition and arrive at the correct answer: $5. This problem is often invoked to illustrate “dual system theory,” which posits two distance “modes” of thinking:  fast intuition and slower reflection, which many now refer to as simply System 1 and System 2.  However, this new research suggests that this binary conception is too simplistic: using variants of just this problem, they identify three distinct “levels” or “types” of reasoning. Furthermore, many of their studies undermine an assumed implication of dual system theories – “that judgmental errors can be avoided merely by getting respondents to slow down and think harder.”

Across 59 experiments involving over 70,000 respondents, Meyer & Frederick document various ways in which intuition remains recalcitrant in the face of manipulations intended to help respondents catch the error. In one instance, they prompted participants, “Before responding, consider whether the answer could be $5.” Though this increased solution rates, they remained low (31%). In their most extreme manipulation, respondents were told, accurately, that the answer is five, and were merely asked to enter that number in the blank below.  Although 77% complied, even here the intuitive answer emerged, with 18% stubbornly clinging to the intuitive response ($10).

How could this be? While these results are tied partially to computational abilities — some people may not be able to perform the required math — Frederick and Meyers posit a broader cognitive process at play that they call an “approximate checker.” If an intuitive answer is approximately right, then our brain is more likely to stick with it. In essence, they write, our brains “pardon small errors but not large ones.”

Reflection is likely more difficult amid the complexities of daily life than it is in the hermetic case of a math riddle. “The difficulty of inducing reflection on a 10-cent ball answer understates the difficulty of inducing reflection more generally,” Frederick and Meyer write.

As marketers vie for the consumer’s attention, it’s important to acknowledge that seeing information does not always equate to reflecting upon it. Modern day technology such as eye tracking devices may judge an advertisement’s success in part based on its ability to sustain a consumer’s attention.  However, this doesn’t mean that it is causing the consumer to stop and think or persuading them to change their intuitive reaction to the brand or product. 

Marketers ought to take careful stock of intuition’s persistence. Sometimes our gut is right. But even when it’s not, it can be difficult to override.

“We discovered...that many — and sometimes most — respondents maintain [an] erroneous response in the face of facts that plainly falsify it, even after their attention has been directed to those facts,” Frederick and Meyer write.

What, then, is the answer for marketers?  Some might reason that we should consider what will get consumers to stop and think, but it is worth considering whether it can be easier and more lucrative for marketers to present information in a way that resonates with what consumers already intuitively know and believe.