What is an intuition?18 min read

Steve Vaisey’s 2009 American Journal of Sociology paper is, deservedly, one of the most (if not the most) influential pieces in contemporary work on culture and cognition in sociology. It is single-handedly responsible for the efflorescence of interest in the study of cognitive processes by sociologists in general, and more specifically it introduced work on dual-process models and dual-process theorizing to the field (see Leschziner, 2019 for a recent review of this work).

Yet, like many broadly influential pieces in science, there’s an odd disconnect between the initial theoretical innovations (and inspirations) of the original piece and the way that the article figures in contemporary citation practices by sociologists. There are also some key misrepresentations of the original argument that have become baked into sociological lore. One of the most common ones is the idea that Vaisey introduced the dual-process model to sociologists or the “sociological dual-process model” (see Leschziner, 2019).

However, as my co-authors and I pointed out in a 2016 piece in Sociological Theory, the use of the singular to refer to dual-process models in social and cognitive psychology is a mistake. From the beginning, dual-process theorizing has consisted of a family of models and theories designed to explain a wide variety of phenomena, from stereotyping to persuasion, biases in reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making, categorization and impression-formation, individual differences in personality, trust, and so forth. As noted in the title of the two most influential collections on the subject (Chaiken & Trope, 1999 and its sequel Sherman, Gawronski & Trope, 2014), social psychologists refer to “dual process theories” and comment on their variety and compatibility with one another. In the paper, we proposed seeing dual-process theorizing as united by a broad meta-theoretical grammar (which we called the “dual process framework”) from which specific dual-process models can be built. In fact, Vanina Leschziner in the aforementioned piece follows this practice and refers to “dual-process models” in sociology.

We also noted that another generator of variety among dual-process theories is the actual aspect of cognition they focus on. Thus, there are dual-process models of learning, memory, action, and so forth, and these need to be analytically kept distinct from one another, so that their interconnections (or lack thereof) can be properly theorized. Although all dual-process models share a family resemblance, they have different emphases and propose different mechanisms, and core imageries depending on what aspect of cognition they aim to make sense of.

As we pointed out in the Sociological Theory piece, this means that the particular dual-process model Vaisey used as inspiration in his original piece becomes relevant. This was Jonathan Haidt’s (2001) “social intuitionist” model of moral judgment. Vaisey (correctly) framed his paper as a contribution to the “culture in action” debate in cultural sociology inaugurated by Ann Swidler (1986) in her own classic paper. Yet, the dual-process model that served as inspiration was really about judgment (what we called culture in “thinking”) and not action (although you can make a non-controversial proposal that judgment impacts action). Moreover, Haidt’s model was not about judgment in general, but about judgment in a restricted domain: Morality. Regardless, the key point to keep in mind is that the core construct in Haidt’s social intuitionist model was intuition, not action. Haidt’s basic point is that most judgments of right and wrong result from an intuitive and not a reflective “reasoning” process, and that post hoc moral “reasoning” emerges after the fact to justify and make sense of our intuitively derived judgments.

Oddly, and perhaps due to the fact that Vaisey’s paper has mostly been interpreted with regard to action theory and research in sociology, the fact that it built on a key construct in social and cognitive psychology, namely, intuition, has essentially dropped out of the picture for sociologists today. For instance, despite its wide influence, Vaisey’s piece has not resulted in sociologists thinking about or theorizing about intuition in judgment and decision-making, developing a sociological approach to intuition (or a “sociology of intuition”), or even thinking seriously about what intuition is, and about the theoretical and empirical implications of the fact that a lot of time we reason via intuition. This is despite the fact that intuition is a going concern across a wide range of fields (Epstein, 2010).

Here I argue that this is something that needs to be corrected. Intuition is a rich and fascinating topic, cutting across a variety of areas of concern in the cognitive, social, and behavioral sciences (see Hodgkinson et al. 2008) and one that could benefit from more concerted sociological attention and theorizing both inside and outside the moral domain. But this means going back to Vaisey’s article (or Jonathan Haidt’s 2001 piece for that matter) and re-reading it in a different theoretical context, one focused on the very idea of what intuition is in the first place, the theoretical implications that a good chunk of our judgments and beliefs come to us via intuition, while revisiting the question of where intuitions come from in the first place.

What are Intuitions?

So, what are intuitions? The basic idea is deceptively simple, but as we will see, the devil is in the details. First, as already noted, “intuition” is best thought of as a quality or a property of certain judgments or reasoning processes (Dewey, 1925, p. 300). Although sometimes people use intuition as a noun, to refer to the product of such an intuitive reasoning process (e.g., “an intuition”). In what follows I stick to the process conception, with the caveat that usually we are dealing with a process/product couplet.

So, we say a given judgment is “intuitive” instead of what? The usual complement is something like “reasoned” or “analytic.” That is, when trying to solve a problem or come up with a judgment, it seems like we can go through the problem step by step in some kind of logical, effortful, or reasoned way, or we can just let the solution “come to us” without experiencing any phenomenological signature of having gone through a reasoned process. This last is an intuition.

Thus, according to the social and cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman (2000, p. 109), “phenomenologically, intuition seems to lack the logical structure of information processing. When one relies on intuition, one has no sense of alternatives being weighted algebraically or a cost-benefit analysis being undertaken.” Jerome Bruner, provides a similar formulation, noting that intuition is “…the intellectual technique of arriving at plausible but tentative conclusions without going through the analytic steps by which such formulations would be found to be valid or invalid conclusions” (1960, p. 13). When applied to beliefs, the quality of being intuitive is thus connected to the fact that judgments regarding their truth or falsity are arrived at “automatically” without going through a long deductive chain of reasoning from first principles (Baumard & Boyer, 2013; Sperber, 1997). In the original case of moral reasoning (Haidt, 2001), these are beliefs that particular practices or actions are just “wrong,” but where the actor cannot quite tell you where the judgment of wrongness comes from.

Notably, there appears to be a convergence among various dual-process theorists that “intuition” could be the best global descriptor of what would otherwise be referred to with the uninformative label of “Type I cognition.”  For instance, the cognitive psychologist Steve Sloman (2014) in an update to a classic dual-process theory piece on “two systems of reasoning” (Sloman, 1996) complains about the proliferation of terms that emerged in the interim to refer to the ideal-typical types of cognition in dual-process models (e.g., “…associative-rule based, tacit-explicit thought implicit-explicit, experiential-rational, intuitive-analytical…” 2014, p. 70), while also rejecting the usefulness of the uninformative numerical labels proposed by Stanovich and West, as these lack descriptive power. To solve the problem, Sloman recommends abandoning his previous (1996) distinction of “associative versus rule-based processing” in favor of the distinction between intuition and deliberation. These folk terms are apposite according to Sloman because they provide a minimal set of theoretical commitments for the dual-process theorist centered on the idea that “…in English, an intuition is a thought whose source one is not conscious of, and deliberation involves sequential consideration of symbolic strings in some form” (ibid, p. 170).

These definitions should already give a sense that intuition is a rich and multifaceted phenomenon, which makes it even more of a shame that no sociological approach to intuitive judgment, intuitive reasoning, or even intuitive belief (as it exists, for instance, in the cognitive science of religion) has been developed in the field in the wake of Vaisey’s influential article. One exception to this, noted in a previous post, is Gordon Brett’s and Andrew Miles’s call to study socially contextualized variation in “thinking dispositions.” Clearly, reliance on intuition to solve problems, make judgments, and arrive at decisions is something that varies systematically across people, such that an intuitive disposition is one such individual attribute worthy of sociological consideration.

In the remaining, I will comment on one core issue related to intuition, ripe for future consideration in culture and cognition studies in sociology, that follows naturally from the idea that people exercise intuitive judgment relatively frequently across a wide variety of arenas and domains, namely, the question of the origins of intuitions.

Intuition and Implicit Learning

Where do intuitions come from in the first place? Surprisingly, there is actually now a well-developed consensus that intuitions develop in life as a result of implicit learning (Epstein, 2010; Lieberman, 2000). This is a substantive theoretical linkage between two sets of dual-process models developed for two distinct aspects of cognition (reasoning and learning). In our 2016 Sociological Theory piece, we made the point that different flavors of the dual-process model result from whether you focused on four distinct aspects of cognition (learning, memory, thinking, or action). However, this work shows that there is a systematic linkage between intuitive reasoning and implicit learning (see Reber, 1993) so that we reason intuitively about domains for which we have acquired experience via implicit learning mechanisms. The linkage between intuition and implicit learning in recent work (e.g., Epstein, 2010) thus speaks to the advantages of distinguishing the different flavors of dual-process theories rather than putting them all into a non-distinct clump.

What is implicit learning? The modern theory of implicit learning has been developed by the psychologist Arthur Reber (1993) who connects it to Michael Polanyi’s (1966) reflections on tacit and explicit knowledge as well as work by the American pragmatists like William James. Reber defines implicit learning as “the acquisition of knowledge that takes place largely independently of conscious attempts to learn and largely in the absence of explicit knowledge about what was acquired” (1993, p. 5). Essentially, implicit learning leads to the acquisition of tacit knowledge, which operates differently from the explicit knowledge acquired via traditional learning mechanisms. Importantly, implicit learning is involved in the extraction of “rule-like” patterns that are encoded in environmental regularities. As Vaisey (2009) noted in his original paper, this is precisely the sort of learning mechanism required by habitus-type theories like Bourdieu’s (1990) where rule-like patterns are acquired from enculturation processes keyed to experience without the internalization of explicit rules.

In this way, the connection between implicit learning and intuition links naturally with recent work in culture and cognition studies dealing with socialization, internalization, and enculturation (see Lizardo, 2021). This also clarifies an aspect of Vaisey’s (2009) argument that remained somewhat fuzzy, especially when making the link between Haidt’s social intuitionist approach and the work of Bourdieu and Giddens. In the original piece, Vaisey noted that Bourdieu’s habitus could be a sociological equivalent of the “intuitive mind” described in terms of the dual-process framework (and contrasted with the conscious or reflective mind in charge or “justifications”). The intuitive mind was usually in charge and the reflective mind provide conscious confabulations that made it look like it was in charge. In this respect, the link between Bourdieu and cognitive science Vaisey made was with respect to content: The contents of the intuitive mind described by social and cognitive psychologists were equivalent to the “unconscious dispositions” that Bourdieu thought made up the habitus.

But in linking implicit learning to intuition, we can make a more substantive linkage between the process via which habitus develops and the penchant to engage particular life domains via intuition. This is something that is closer to the dynamic enculturation model of habitus that Vaisey noted was developed by the anthropologists Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn when they explicitly liked  “habitus to the set of unconscious schemas that people develop through life experience” (Vaisey, 2009, p. 1685).

Thus, intuitions (product conception), as (one of the) contemporaneous contents of the “implicit mind” have their origin in an implicit learning process of abstraction of consistent patterns from the regularities of experience (social and otherwise). As Hodgkinson et al. note, “[i]mplicit learning and implicit knowledge contribute to the knowledge structures upon which individuals draw when making intuitive judgments” (2008, p. 2). If you think this is an unwarranted or forced conceptual linkage, note that the equation between implicit learning and intuition was even made by Reber in the original statement of the modern theory of implicit learning and tacit knowledge. According to Hodgkinson et al. (2008, p. 6; paraphrasing Reber, 1989, p. 232):

Intuition may be the direct result of implicit, unconscious learning: through the gradual process of implicit learning, tacit implicit representations emerge that capture environmental regularities and are used in direct coping with the world (without the involvement of any introspective process). Intuition is the end product of this process of unconscious and bottom-up learning, to engage in particular classes of action.

Note that an implication of this is that we cannot have “intuitions” about domains for which have not had consistent histories of implicit learning. Instead, absent such history, we will tend to default to coming up with judgments and decisions using explicit reasoning mechanisms (“type 2 cognition”). This means that experts in a given domain will likely have more intuitions about that domain than non-experts (Hodgkinson, et al. 2008).

Overall, the implications for the study of the link between enculturation processes and down-the-line outcomes and group differences in thinking and action of Vaisey’s original argument is one thread that sociologists would do well to pick up again. The aforementioned also speaks for the value of keeping different flavors of dual-process theorizing analytically distinct so that we can theorize their interconnections.


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