What is counterintuitive?

Simine Vazire has a great post contemplating how we should evaluate counterintuitive claims. For me that brings up the question: what do we mean when we say something is “counterintuitive?”

First, let me say what I think counterintuitive isn’t. The “intuitive” part points to the fact that when we label something counterintuitive, we are usually not talking about contradicting a formal, well-specified theory. For example, you probably wouldn’t say that the double-slit experiment was “counterintuitive;” you’d say it falsified classical mechanics.

In any science, though, you have areas of inquiry where there is not an existing theory that makes precise predictions. In social and personality psychology that is the majority of what we are studying. (But it’s true in other sciences too, probably more than we appreciate.) Beyond the reach of formal theory, scientists develop educated guesses, hunches, and speculations based on their knowledge and experience. So the “intuitive” in counterintuitive could refer to the intuitions of experts.

But in social and personality psychology we study phenomena that regular people reflect on and speculate about too. A connection to everyday lived experience is almost definitional to our field, whether you think it is something that we should actively pursue or just inevitably creeps in. So we have an extra source of intuitions – the intuitions of people who are living the phenomena that we study. Which includes ourselves, since social and personality psychologists are all human beings too.

And when you are talking about something that (a) people reflect on and wonder about and (b) is not already well settled, then chances are pretty good that people have had multiple, potentially contradictory ideas about it. Sometimes different people having different ideas; sometimes the same person having different ideas at different times. The contradictory ideas might even have made their way into cultural wisdom – like “birds of a feather flock together” versus “opposites attract.”

What I suspect that means is that “counterintuitive” is often just a rhetorical strategy for writing introduction sections and marketing our work. No matter how your results turned out, you can convince your audience that they once thought the opposite. Because chances are very good that they did. A skilled writer can exploit the same mechanisms that lead to hindsight bias to set people up, and then surprise! show them that the results went the other way.

I would not claim that this describes all instances of counterintuitive, but I think it describes a lot of them. As Simine points out, many people in psychology say that counterintuitive findings are more valuable — so clearly there is an incentive to frame things that way. (Counterintuitive framing is also a great way to sell a lot of books.)

Of course, it does not have to be that way. After all, we are the field that specializes in measuring and explaining people’s intuitions. Why don’t we ask our colleagues to back up their claims of being “counterintuitive” with data? Describe the procedure fully and neutrally to a group of people (experts or nonexperts, depending whose intuitions you want to claim to be counter to) and ask what they think will happen. Milgram famously did that with his obedience experiments.

We should also revisit why we think “counterintuitive” is valuable. Sometimes it clearly is. For example, when intuition systematically leads people to make consequentially bad decisions it can be important to document that and understand why. But being counterintuitive for counterintuitive’s sake? If intuitions vary widely — and so do results, across contexts and populations — then we run the risk that placing too much value on counterintuitive findings will do more to incentive rhetorical flash than substantive discoveries.

A scientist replies to people who say “I knew it all along”

Pick the one that best applies:

1. No you didn’t. The answer sounds plausible and you are a reasonably smart person so you quickly absorbed it as the correct one. So quickly, in fact, that in hindsight it now feels like you knew it all along. It is hard to have a memory of not knowing something, because way back when you did not know, you did not know that you did not know. So now you think you knew it all along, because you know it now and you don’t have a distinct memory of not knowing.

2. No you didn’t. You have previously wondered, or maybe just heard conventional wisdom that sounds like the answer you know now. Now that you know the right answer, the one you have just heard, you can search your memory and discover that you’ve thought or heard something vaguely resembling the answer before. But in fact, if you really thought about it, you could probably dig up a memory or some conventional wisdom that supports a completely different answer. Consider also that you never took a public stand, you never made it real, you never made yourself accountable for the answer you’re now claiming you knew all along. Which means that if the right answer had turned out to be completely different, it would be just as easy to say you knew that one all along instead.

3. No you didn’t. You thought it all along, but you didn’t know it all along. Your beliefs were based in your ideology or your worldview, not on any objective evidence. If you ever encountered somebody who believed differently because they had a different ideology or worldview, then at most the two of you stood there talking past each other, offering zero enlightenment to anybody approaching the issue without prejudice. Those people needed hard evidence, and you only had arguments. You didn’t know, you just thought you knew.

4. No you didn’t. You made a lucky guess. You are mentally engaged with the world, and so like all mentally engaged humans you form lots of guesses and speculations and opinions about lots of things. If you guess enough times about enough things, some of those guesses will eventually turn out to be right. That doesn’t mean you knew it all along.

5. No you didn’t. You knew the superficial version that everybody knew and that, to the scientists, was beside the point. The story you just heard or the press article you just read has omitted the scientifically interesting part. The scientists weren’t interested in the simple descriptive fact, the one that they, you, and everybody else knew all along. They were interested in how it worked or why it was the way it was.

6. Yes you did. Congratulations. You are hereby authorized to say things like, “Still no cure for cancer,” or “My tax dollars went to this?!?” Have at it.