Should we ignore our gut instincts?

People who met Jimmy Savile during his long career as a rather strange celebrity have popped up of late to say that they found him creepy all along, even if they knew nothing at the time about his recently exposed predilections for young girls. 

In hindsight, they should have gone with their instincts.

Those whose job it is to look into the behaviour of manipulative control freaks – of which sex attackers and paedophile are a subgroup – have found that these individuals are generally ‘pushy’ with their offers to help, and then quick to demand something in return.  Similarly, they verbally trample over anyone who says ‘no’ to a suggestion.

If we can be on our guard for people who make us feel uncomfortable, or who infringe on our personal space, then maybe we will have gone some way towards protecting ourselves against something considerably more serious.  We might also act to protect someone else from harm.

But going along with what comes automatically to our minds, or our instinctive biases, is to disregard current theories on how we should properly use our intelligence.  The latest Big Idea says we should reject what the lazy brain initially comes up with and instead make more of an effort to properly process the information and arrive at a more rational view.

In the recent global bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes two ‘systems’ in the human mind.  System 1 is our low effort mode, and makes snap judgements (often perfectly reasonable ones, like detecting that one object is more distant than another).  System 2 is what we use when we need to pay attention, such as counting the number of times the letter ‘e’ appears in this blog, or examining the validity of evidence before us.  But it is also too ready to believe the story that System 1 constructs, instead of scrutinising it.  We are idle creatures, and avoid effort when possible.  And that, in short, is the cause of much irrational thinking among politicians, economists, readers of newspaper statistics … pretty much all of us.

bronze of man thinking

If Kahneman’s research has a practical application, it is that we should train ourselves to use our system 2 more.  On the whole I’d agree.  But in the weeks since the fallout of the Savile case began I’m thinking that identifying dodgy people is possibly one area when we should ‘trust’ our system 1 – our instincts – evidence or no evidence.