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Intuitive Guidance: Emotion, Information, and Experience

Peter Railton

The Question of Psychological Realism—Could We Really Be Homo prospectus?

The reader may by now feel a growing skepticism: If prospection is such a fundamental feature of the architecture of the human mind, and if a prospective mind proceeds by acquiring information to generate and evaluate diverse possible future courses of action, then why does our actual psychological life seem so different from this? Why does everyday thinking seem to be so preoccupied with the present moment and the recent past, devoting so little time to any explicit planning for the future? Often one thing just runs into another, and we operate in a manner that seems to be largely a mixture of habit (when things are familiar) and guesswork (when they are not). And even when we stop to make a decision with an eye toward the future, we seldom consider more than one or two alternatives, without attempting anything like a systematic accounting of the benefits, costs, and risks of the options before us. One might strengthen this last point: Hasn't psychology over the last several decades told us that people are conspicuously weak at the rational estimation of probabilities or the coherent comparison of expected values over time? And finally, if we're so smart, why ain't we rich? Humans—individually, socially, and globally—seem to be plagued with the regrettable consequences that result from failure to think ahead.

Is our notion of prospection, therefore, simply psychologically unrealistic? In Chapter 1, we drew attention to some of the core components of prospective guidance of action, but it was more by storytelling than hard evidence. And we did not spell out how ordinary conscious experience might relate to the prospective processes we mentioned. In this chapter, we will begin to remedy these defects, providing a fuller picture of the psychology of Homo prospectus, trying to make him or her more recognizable in our own lived experience.

Our explanation will involve three key elements and their related challenges:

  • Intuition—The moment-to-moment guidance of thought and action is typically intuitive rather than deliberative. When we're having a conversation, for example, almost fully formed thoughts come spontaneously to mind as the conversation evolves. We speak our thoughts with little forethought or reflection, sometimes with a quick aptness or wit that surprises even ourselves, and sometimes with an inaptness that we very much regret.
  • Affect—According to the prospection hypothesis, our emotional or affective system is constantly active because we are constantly in the business of evaluating alternatives and selecting among them. Yet when we think of emotion—fear, anger, joy, surprise, sadness, guilt—these seem to be episodic, discontinuous, more often reactions to departures from the normal course of events than an ongoing condition. True, some affective states, such as moods, are more persistent (think of the person who is chronically depressed, anxious, or angry). Yet such states are blanket responses to the world, not finely tuned sensitivities to the changing scene.
  • Information—A system of prospective guidance is informationintensive, calling for individuals to attend to many variables and to update their values continuously in response to experience.

Yet the amount of information we can take in, hold in active awareness, or retain for any length of time, seems much more limited. In ordinary thought and action, we seem to rely excessively on the most recent information or unrepresentative scraps from the past or to fall back on a limited array of basic schemes, rules of thumb, or habitual responses.

What do intuition, affect, and information have to do with one another, and how do they fit into the picture of Homo prospectus?

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