How much certainty do you have in your life? Are you certain there’s enough milk in the refrigerator to last through tomorrow morning? Do you think you can drive 20mph over the speed limit without getting a ticket? What are the chances the person you met at a bar last night will be your life partner? These are the murky calculations of our lives and a slew of research over decades of work has shown that it’s not just our brains that make these decisions – or, of course it’s your brain, but rather than the Spock-like logical side of your intelligence, many of our most difficult choices are decided by hunches, gut feelings and the kneejerk of reactions that are beyond or beneath consciousness.
This is what researchers call emotion-based learning: Based on the emotional significance of past events, you learn to approach or avoid similar situations in the future — without needing to process these situations consciously. The horror of that morning last month without milk for your coffee makes you reconsider the splash that may or may not be in the ‘fridge now; you know the five minutes you’d save going 60 in a 40 aren’t worth the $200 ticket and half an hour of being pulled over; and about that fling who was sexy in a self-destructive way last night? Well, if you’ve been down that road before, your emotion-based learning should tell you to steer clear now.
So why, so often, does it fail? And how can you ensure your emotion-based learning leads your intuitions in the correct direction?
These are questions of a recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology by Oliver Hugh Turnbull and colleagues. As the paper points out, much of what we know about emotion-based learning comes from a test called the Iowa Gambling Task – and it’s been exactly 20 years since Antoine Bechara’s famous paper put the IGT on the map. Variations exist, but basically the IGT asks you to pick cards from one of three decks. Some cards give a reward and some cards penalize you, and here’s the important part: the decks are stacked so that some pay more than others.
You can’t use sense to make sense of a senseless world. (Does that make sense?) Instead, the human brain has developed a second system: Even before picking enough cards for a cribbage hand, people tend to develop “hunches,” which researchers can see as increased skin conductivity when subjects hover over the wrong decks – like Venkman’s famous scene in Ghostbusters, subjects anticipate being punished before they can articulate their understanding that a punishment is coming. (That is, unless the subject has a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in which case they continue to act like your friend whose lack of emotion-based learning dooms him or her to strings of failed relationships and many mornings without milk in the ‘fridge.)
Amnesia, even dementia? Turnbull and colleagues point out that these things that can ravage what we think of as “memory” may not affect emotion-based learning at all. These learning systems are independent: you can learn with your head or with your heart (okay, okay, emotion-based learning technically remains just another area of your “head” but you get the point).
No matter the mechanics, you know that some people have more emotion-based learning than others. Let’s let the cat out of the bag and give it a name we all understand: some people are intuitive and others aren’t.
And the overwhelming message of Turnbull looking back at 20 years of Bechara is that unless you’ve taken a hit to the VMPFC, you probably have whispers of intuition, only, so many of us choose not to listen. And even if we listen, we choose not to hear.
Bechara shows (and Turnbull reports) that sometimes the smarter we are – the higher our IQ – the poorer we do on the Iowa Gambling Task. That’s because smart people may try to impose their cerebral might on a task they could have “felt” their way through much earlier. They may choose to not hear the whispers of intuition. Other subjects in these tests choose to willfully disregard their hunches, imagining these hunches are false whisperings and that any information they can’t source in their consciousness must be less valid than things we call “thoughts.” These people listen but choose not to hear.
“For much of its history, psychological science focused on rational choice, rather that the less well-specified and emotion-based intuitive aspects of human choice. These later systems are clearly enormously important for human beings,” Turnbull writes.
In education and business and the ivory towers of research institutions, we’ve wrung the juice from the rutabaga of rationality. But even after 20 years, the study of how we are led by our emotions and how we might best use our poweful intuition is just gathering steam.