THE TECHNOLOGY OF INTUITION

 


CHAPTER TWO ▪
THE TECHNOLOGY OF INTUITION

“Technology is not going to save us. Our computers,
our tools, our machines are not enough. We have
to rely on our intuition, our true being.”
Joseph Campbell

“I walked into that convenience store to buy a few magazines and for some reason, I was suddenly… afraid, and I turned right around and walked out. I don’t know what told me to leave, but later that day I heard about the shooting.”

Airline pilot Robert Thompson is telling me about dodging death right here on the ground. I ask him what he saw, what he reacted to.

“Nothing, it was just a gut feeling. [A pause.] Well, now that I think back, the guy behind the counter looked at me with a very rapid glance, just jerked his head toward me for an instant, and I guess I’m used to the clerk sizing you up when you walk in, but he was intently looking at another customer, and that must have seemed odd to me. I must have seen that he was concerned.”

When free of judgment, we inherently respect the intuition of others. Sensing that someone else is in that special state of assessing hazard, we are alerted, just as when we see the cat or dog awaken suddenly from a nap and stare intently into a dark hallway.

Thompson continues. “I noticed that the clerk was focused on a customer who was wearing a big, heavy jacket, and of course, I now realize that it was very hot, so that’s probably where the guy was hiding the shotgun. Only after I saw on the news what kind of car they were looking for did I remember that there were two men sitting in a station wagon in the parking lot with the engine running. Now it’s all clear, but it didn’t mean a thing to a me at the time.”

Actually, it did then too,” I tell him. Combining what amounted to fear on the face of the clerk, with the man in the heavy coat on the hot day, with the men in the car with its engine running, with Thompson’s unconscious knowledge of convenience store robberies from years of news reports, with his unconscious memory of frequent police visits to that store, which he’d driven past hundreds of times, and with countless other things we might never discover about Thompson’s experience and knowledge, it is no wonder he left that store just moments before a police officer happened in and was shot dead by a man he surprised in the middle of a robbery.

 

What Robert Thompson and many others want to dismiss as a coincidence or a gut feeling is in fact a cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the familiar step-by-step thinking we rely on so willingly. We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height at which it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous. Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why.

At just the moment when our intuition is most basic, people tend to consider it amazing or supernatural. A woman tells a simple story as if it were mystical: “I absolutely knew when the phone rang that it would be my college roommate, calling after all these years.” Though people act as if predictions of who is calling are miraculous, they rarely are. In this case, her old roommate was reminded of her by reports of the explosion of the space shuttle. Is it a miracle that both women happened to watch the same news event along with a billion others? Is it a miracle that their strongest association with space travel was the angry belief they shared in college that women would never be astronauts? And a woman astronaut died in the space shuttle explosion that morning, and the two women thought of each other, even after a decade.

 

These non-critical intuitions, which at first impress us, are often revealed to be somewhat rudimentary, especially in contrast to what the mind delivers when we might be in danger.

In A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman says, “The brain is a good stagehand. It gets on with its work while we’re busy acting out our scenes. When we see an object, the whole peninsula of our senses wakes up to appraise the new sight. All the brain’s shopkeepers consider it from their point of view, all the civil servants, all the accountants, all the students, all the farmers, all the mechanics.” We could add the soldiers and guards to Ackerman’s list, for it is they who evaluate the context in which things occur, the appropriateness and significance of literally everything we sense. These soldiers and guards separate the merely unusual from the significantly unusual. They weigh the time of day, day of the week, loudness of the sound, quickness of the movement, flavor of the scent, smoothness of the surface, the entire lay of the land. They discard the irrelevant and value the meaningful. They recognize the survival signals we don’t even (consciously) know are signals.

 

After years of praising intuition as the cornerstone of safety, I just recently learned to my surprise and appreciation that the root of the word intuition, tuere, means “to guard, to protect.” That is what it did for Robert Thompson. Shaken by his narrow miss, he later wondered why the police officer did not intuit what he did. It may be that the officer saw different things. Thompson saw only one car in the parking lot, but the officer saw two, likely giving the appearance of a business patronized by a few customers. Though the clerk’s face had sent Thompson a fear signal, the police officer probably saw relief in that same face as he entered the store. It is also likely that the seasoned officer suffered the disadvantage that sometimes comes with being expert at something. He was operating with the accurate but (in this case) misleading knowledge that armed robberies are less frequent in the daytime than at night.

Many experts lose the creativity and imagination of the less informed. They are so intimately familiar with known patterns that they may fail to recognize or respect the importance of the new wrinkle. The process of applying expertise is, after all, the editing out of unimportant details in favor of those known to be relevant. Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki said, “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.” People enjoying so-called beginner’s luck prove this all the time.

Even men of science rely on intuition, both knowingly and unknowingly. The problem is, we discourage them from doing it. Imagine that you go to see a doctor, a specialist in some particular malady, and before you even sit down in his examining room, he says, “You’re fine; please pay my receptionist on the way out.” You might understandably feel that the opinion he rendered intuitively was not worth paying for, though it might be the exact same diagnosis you would get after his poking and prodding you with fancy equipment. A friend of mine who is a doctor has to prove his scientific acumen to patients before they’ll accept his intuition. “I call it the tap dance. After I do a few steps, patients say ‘Okay, I see you can dance,’ and then they believe me.”

The amateur at the convenience store teaches us that intuition heeded is far more valuable than simple knowledge. Intuition is a gift we all have, whereas retention of knowledge is a skill. Rare is the expert who combines an informed opinion with a strong respect for his own intuition and curiosity. Curiosity is, after all, the way we answer when intuition whispers, “There’s something there.” I use it all the time in my work because it can unlock information that clients are hiding from themselves.

 

Often I will carry a conversation back to details a client provided but then rushed past. I am particularly interested in those that are not required elements of the story, those that might seem unimportant but for the fact that they were mentioned. I call these extra details satellites, shot off into space, later to beam back valuable information. I always follow them.

A client who recounted getting anonymous death threats after a long and contentious lawsuit felt quite certain they were from the man she had sued, but her story includes some extra details: “After the case was settled, I knew that the guy we’d sued was still really angry, but I was surprised he would stoop to sending me death threats. I was discussing the settlement one day with Tony—he used to be an intern for my lawyer but he’s not working for my lawyer anymore—anyway, I said to him, ‘I hope the case being over really ends the matter,’ and I thought it would, but then the threat letters started coming.”

What’s the satellite in the story? I was discussing the settlement one day with Tony—he used to be an intern for my lawyer but he’s not working for my lawyer anymore… These details about a person my client made a remark to are not key elements in the story, but her inclusion of them was a signal for me.

“Tell me about the guy who used to work for your lawyer.”

“Oh, Tony? He got fired, one of the many casualties of the case, I guess. He was so sweet to me. He’d taken a real interest in the case, but apparently he’d let other responsibilities slide. Even after he was fired, he kept coming to court to give me support, which I really appreciated. When the case settled, my lawyer threw a party for us all, but Tony wasn’t invited. It was sad, because he called me and said, ‘I hope we can still stay in touch even though the case is over.’ [A pause.] You don’t think…?”

My client then described several odd things Tony had done, followed by the revelation (more accurately, the recollection) that Tony had once told her he was helping an acquaintance who was getting threats from an ex-boyfriend. So an extraneous character in a story—a seemingly unimportant detail—became a suspect, and ultimately the proven threatener. On some level, my client knew all along he was the best suspect, but she denied it, preferring to indict her nasty opponent over her friendly ally.

How many times have you said after following one course, knew I shouldn’t have done that?” That means you got the signal and then didn’t follow it. We all know how to respect intuition, though often not our own. For example, people tend to invest all kinds of intuitive ability in dogs, a fact I was reminded of recently when a friend told me this story: “Ginger had a really bad reaction to our new building contractor; she even growled at him. She seemed to sense that he isn’t trustworthy, so I’m going to get some bids from other people.”

“That must be it,” I joked with her, “the dog feels you should get another general contractor because this one’s not honest.”

“The irony,” I explained, “is that it’s far more likely Ginger is reacting to your signals than that you are reacting to hers. Ginger is an expert at reading you, and you are the expert at reading other people. Ginger, smart as she is, knows nothing about the ways a contractor might inflate the cost to his own profit, or about whether he is honest, or about the benefits of cost-plus-fifteen-percent versus a fixed bid, or about the somewhat hesitant recommendation you got from a former client of that builder, or about the too-fancy car he arrived in, or about the slick but evasive answer he gave to your pointed question.” My friend laughed at the revelation that Ginger, whose intuition she was quick to overrate, is actually a babbling idiot when it comes to remodel work. In fact, Ginger is less than that because she can’t even babble. (If there are dogs out there intuitive enough to detect what’s being read here by their masters, I take it all back.)

Contrary to what people believe about the intuition of dogs, your intuitive abilities are vastly superior (and given that you add to your experience every day, you are at the top of your form right now). Ginger does sense and react to fear in humans because she knows instinctively that a frightened person (or animal) is more likely to be dangerous, but she has nothing you don’t have. The problem, in fact, is that extra something you have that a dog doesn’t: it is judgment, and that’s what gets in the way of your perception and intuition. With judgment comes the ability to disregard your own intuition unless you can explain it logically, the eagerness to judge and convict your own feelings, rather than honor them. Ginger is not distracted by the way things could be, used to be, or should be. She perceives only what is. Our reliance on the intuition of a dog is often a way to find permission to have an opinion we might otherwise be forced to call (God forbid) unsubstantiated.

 

Can you imagine an animal reacting to the gift of fear the way some people do, with annoyance and disdain instead of attention? No animal in the wild suddenly overcome with fear would spend any of its mental energy thinking, “It’s probably nothing.” Too often we chide ourselves for even momentarily giving validity to the feeling that someone is behind us on a seemingly empty street, or that someone’s unusual behavior might be sinister. Instead of being grateful to have a powerful internal resource, grateful for the self-care, instead of entertaining the possibility that our minds might actually be working for us and not just playing tricks on us, we rush to ridicule the impulse. We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore—and even to ignore—survival signals. The mental energy we use searching for the innocent explanation to everything could more constructively be applied to evaluating the environment for important information.

Every day, people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in mid-thought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it.

 

A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, “But he seems like such a nice man.” Yet this is exactly what many people do. A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago—it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself: “I’m not going to live like that, I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.” When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator.

Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of? The inner voice is wise, and part of my purpose in writing this book is to give people permission to listen to it.

Even when intuition speaks in the clearest terms, even when the message gets through, we may still seek an outside opinion before we’ll listen to ourselves. A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist told me of a patient he’d heard of whom reported, “Recently, when my wife goes to bed, I find some excuse to stay downstairs until she’s asleep. If she’s still awake when I get to our room, I’ll often stay in the bathroom for a long time so that I’m sure she’s asleep by the time I get into bed. Do you think I’m unconsciously trying to avoid having sex with my wife?” The psychiatrist astutely asked, “What was the unconscious part?”

When victims explain to me after the fact that they “unconsciously” knew they were in danger, I could ask the same question: “What was the unconscious part?”

The strange way people evaluate risk sheds some light on why we often choose not to avoid danger. We tend to give our full attention to risks that are beyond our control (air crashes, nuclear-plant disasters) while ignoring those we feel in charge of (dying from smoking, poor diet, car accidents), even though the latter are far more likely to harm us. In Why The Reckless Survive, Dr. Melvin Konner’s exceptional book about you and me (and all other human beings), he points out that “We drink and drive without our seat belts and light up another cigarette… and then cancel the trip to Europe on the one-in-a-million chance of an Arab terrorist attack.” Many Americans who wouldn’t travel to see the pyramids for fear of being killed in Egypt, stay home where that danger is twenty times greater.

While we knowingly volunteer for some risks, we object to those imposed on us by others. Konner notes that we seem to be saying, “If I want to smoke myself to death, it’s my own business, but if some company is trying to put something over on me with asbestos or nerve gas, I’ll be furious.” We will tolerate familiar risks over strange ones. The hijacking of an American jet in Athens looms larger in our concern than the parent who kills a child, even though one happens rarely, and the other happens daily.

 

We deny because we’re built to see what we want to see. In his book The Day the Universe Changed, historian James Burke points out that “it is the brain which sees, not the eye. Reality is in the brain before it is experienced, or else the signals we get from the eye would make no sense.” This truth underscores the value of having the pieces of the violence puzzle in our heads before we need them, for only then can we recognize survival signals.

We certainly care enough about this topic to learn the signals: A Harris poll reveals that an overwhelming majority of Americans perceive the greatest risks in the areas of crime and personal safety. If this is true, then we must ask some new questions about violence and about ourselves. For example, is it reasonable that we know more about why a man buys a particular brand of shaving lotion than about why he buys a gun? And why are we fascinated when a famous person is attacked by a stalker, which happens once every two or three years, yet uninterested when a woman is killed by a stalking husband or boyfriend, which happens once every two hours? Why does America have thousands of suicide prevention centers and not one homicide prevention center?

 

And why do we worship hindsight (as in the news media’s constant rehash of the day, the week, the year) and yet distrust foresight, which actually might make a difference in our lives?

One reason is that we don’t have to develop our own predictive skills in a world where experts will tell us what to do. Katherine, a young women of twenty-seven, asks me (the expert) a question nearly all women in our society must consider: “How can I can tell if a man I date is turning into a problem? Is there a checklist of warning signs about stalkers?”

Instead of answering her question directly, I ask her to give me an example of what she means.

“Well,” she says, “I dated this guy named Bryan, who got sort of obsessed with me and wouldn’t let go when I wanted to stop seeing him. We met at a party of a friend of mine, and he must have asked somebody there for my number. Before I even got home, he’d left me three messages. I told him I didn’t want to go out with him, but he was so enthusiastic about it that I really didn’t have any choice. We dated for about a month. In the beginning, he was super attentive, always seemed to know what I wanted. He remembered everything I ever said. It was flattering, but it also made me a little uncomfortable. Like when I mentioned needing more space for my books, he showed up one day with shelves and all the stuff and just put them up. I couldn’t say no. And he read so much into whatever I said. Once he asked if I’d go to a basketball game with him, and I said maybe. He later said, ‘You promised.’ Also, he talked about serious things so early, like living together and marriage and children. He started with jokes about that stuff the first time we went out, and later he wasn’t joking. Or when he suggested that I have a phone in my car. I wasn’t sure I even wanted a carphone, but he borrowed my car one day and just had one installed. It was a gift, so what could I say? And, of course, he called me whenever I was in the car. And he was so adamant that I never speak to my ex-boyfriend on that car phone. Later he got angry if I spoke to my ex at all. There were also a couple of my friends he didn’t like me to see, and he stopped spending time with his own friends. Finally, when I told him I didn’t want to be his girlfriend, he refused to hear it. He basically insisted that I stay in a relationship with him, and when I wouldn’t, he forced me into a relationship of sorts by always calling, showing up, sending gifts, talking to my friends, coming to my work uninvited. We’d only known each other for about a month, but he acted like it was the most important relationship of his life. So what are the warning signs of that kind of guy?”

Katherine had, of course, answered her own question [more on date-stalking in chapter 11]. My best advice might not have been satisfying to her: “Listen to yourself.” Experts rarely tell us we already know the answers. Just as we want their checklist, they want our check.

Perhaps the greatest experts at day-to-day high-stakes predictions are police officers. Those with experience on the streets have learned about violence and its warning signs, but unchecked denial can eclipse all that knowledge. Police survival expert Michael Cantrell learned this many times in his career.

When Cantrell was in his fourth year as a policeman, his partner, whom I’ll call David Patrick, told him about a dream he’d had in which “one of us gets shot.”

“Well, you should pay close attention to that dream,” Cantrell responded, “because it isn’t going to be me.”

Patrick brought up the topic again, announcing one day: “I’m sure I will be shot.” Cantrell came to believe him, particularly given Patrick’s lax officer survival strategies. On one of their rides together, they’d pulled over a car with three men inside. Though the driver was cordial, Cantrell intuitively felt danger because the other two men just stared straight ahead. He was dismayed that his partner wasn’t alert to the possible hazards and seemed more interested in getting a pipe lit as he stood at the side of the patrol car. Cantrell asked the driver to get out of the car, and as the man opened the door, Cantrell saw a handgun on the floor and yelled out “Gun!” to his partner, but Patrick still did not respond attentively.

They survived that hazard, but unable to shake the feeling that his partner’s premonition was an accurate prediction, Cantrell eventually discussed it with his supervisor. The sergeant told him he was overreacting. Each of the several times Cantrell asked to discuss it, the sergeant chided him, “Look, in all my time with the Department, I’ve never even drawn my gun, and we haven’t had a shooting here for as long as I can remember.”

On one of Cantrell’s days off, Patrick sat with other officers at the patrol briefing listening to the description of two men who had been involved in several armed robberies. Within a few hours, Patrick (riding alone) observed two men who fit the description discussed in the briefing. One of them stood at a pay phone but didn’t appear to be talking to anyone. The other man repeatedly walked over and looked in the window of a supermarket. Patrick had more than enough reason to call for backup, but may have been concerned that he’d be embarrassed if it turned out these weren’t the wanted criminals. The men saw Patrick and they walked off down the street. He followed alongside in his patrol car. Without calling in any description or request for assistance, he waved the men over. Patrick got out of his car and asked one of them to turn around for a pat-down. Even though Patrick had seen enough to be suspicious, even though he recognized and consciously considered that these might be the two wanted men, he still continued to ignore the survival signals. When he finally registered a signal of great danger from the man next to him, it was much too late to act on. Out of the corner of his eye, Patrick saw the slowly rising handgun that, an instant later, was fired into his face. The man pulled the trigger six times as Patrick fell. The second man produced a gun and shot Patrick once in the back.

After the two criminals ran off, Patrick was able to get to his radio. When the tape of that radio call was played for Cantrell, he could clearly hear blood gurgling in Patrick’s mouth as he gasped, “I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot.”

Amazingly, Patrick recovered and went back to police work for a short while. Still reluctant to take responsibility for his safety or his recklessness, he later told Cantrell, “If you’d been with me, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Remember that sergeant who accused Cantrell of overreacting? He had decided there was a low level of risk based on just two factors: that he had never drawn his gun during his career, and that none of the department’s officers had been shot in recent memory. If this second factor were a valid predictor, then the shooting of Patrick should have changed the sergeant’s evaluation of hazard. Apparently it didn’t, because a few months later, he was himself shot in a convenience store.

 

Cantrell has left law enforcement for the corporate world, but every week he volunteers his time to teach the gift of fear to police officers. People now listen to him when he tells them to listen to themselves.

Aside from outright denial of intuitive signals, there is another way we get into trouble. Our intuition fails when it is loaded with inaccurate information. Since we are the editors of what gets in and what is invested with credibility, it is important to evaluate our sources of information. I explained this during a presentation for hundreds of government threat assessors at the Central Intelligence Agency a few years ago, making my point by drawing on a very rare safety hazard: kangaroo attacks. I told the audience that about twenty people a year are killed by the normally friendly animals, and that kangaroos always display a specific set of indicators before they attack:

1. They will give what appears to be a wide and genial smile (but they are actually showing their teeth).

2. They will check their pouches compulsively several times to be sure they have no young with them (they never attack while carrying young).

3. They will look behind them (since they always retreat immediately after they kill).

After these three signals, they will lunge, brutally pummel an enemy, and gallop off.

 

I asked two audience members to stand up and repeat back the warning signs, and both flawlessly described the smile, the checking of the pouch for young, and the looking back for an escape route. In fact, everyone in that room (and now you) will remember those warning signs for life. If you are ever face to face with a kangaroo, be it tomorrow or decades from now, those three pre-incident indicators will be in your head.

The problem, I told the audience at the CIA, is that I made up those signals. I did it to demonstrate the risks of inaccurate information. I actually know nothing about kangaroo behavior (so forget the three signals if you can—or stay away from hostile kangaroos).

 

In our lives, we are constantly bombarded with kangaroo signals masquerading as knowledge, and our intuition relies on us to decide what we will give credence to. James Burke says, “You are what you know.” He explains that fifteenth-century Europeans knew that everything in the sky rotated around the earth. Then Galileo’s telescope changed that truth.

Today, Burke notes, we live according to still another truth, and “like the people of the past, we disregard phenomena which do not fit our view because they are ‘wrong’ or outdated. Like our ancestors, we know the real truth.”

When it comes to safety, there is a lot of “real truth” to go around, and some of it puts people at risk. For example, is it always best for a woman being stalked by an ex-husband to get a restraining order? This certainly is the conventional wisdom, yet women are killed every day by men they have court orders against, the often useless documents found by police in the purse or pocket of the victims. (More on this in chapter 10.)

Perhaps the greatest false truth is that some people are just not intuitive, as if this key survival element was somehow left out of them.

Cynthia is a substitute schoolteacher, a funny, beautiful woman totally unlike the dull and much-harassed substitutes most of us recall from our school years. One day while we were having lunch, Cynthia bemoaned to me that she just wasn’t intuitive. “I never see the signs until it’s too late; I don’t have that inner voice some people have.”

And yet, I reminded her, several times a week she enters a room full of six and seven year-old children she’s never met before and quickly makes automatic, unconscious assessments of their future behavior. With amazing accuracy, she predicts who among thirty will seek to test her the most, who will encourage the other children to behave or misbehave, whom the other children will follow, what discipline strategies will work best, and on and on.

“That’s true,” she says. “Every day I have to predict what the kids will do, and I succeed for reasons I can’t explain.” After a thoughtful pause she adds: “But I can’t predict the behavior of adults.”

This is interesting, because the range of behavior children might engage in is far, far greater than it is for adults. Few adults will suddenly throw something across the room and then break into uncontrolled laughter. Few women will, without apparent reason, lift their skirts above their heads or reach over to the next desk at work and grab the eyeglasses right off someone’s face. Few adults will pour paint on the floor and then smear it around with their feet. Yet each of these behaviors is familiar to substitute teachers.

 

Predicting the routine behavior of adults in the same culture is so simple, in fact, that we rarely even bother to do it consciously. We react only to the unusual, which is a signal that there might be something worth predicting. The man next to us on the plane for five hours garners little of our attention until, out of the corner of one eye, we see that he is reading the magazine in our hand. The point is that we intuitively evaluate people all the time, quite attentively, but they only get our conscious attention when there is a reason. We see it all, but we edit out most of it. Thus, when something does call out to us, we ought to pay attention. For many people, that is a muscle they don’t exercise.

At lunch, I told Cynthia I’d show her an example of listening to intuition. We were at a restaurant neither of us had been to before. The waiter was a slightly too subservient man whom I took to be of Middle-Eastern descent.

I said, “Take our waiter, for example. I’ve never met him and don’t know a thing about him, but I can tell you he’s not just the waiter—he’s actually the owner of this restaurant. He is from Iran, where his family had several successful restaurants before they moved to America.”

Because there was no expectation that I’d be right on any of this, I had simply said what came into my head. I thought I was making it up, creating it. More likely, I was calling it up, discovering it.

Cynthia and I went on talking, but in my head I was tearing apart the theories I had just expressed with such certainty. Across the room I saw a print of an elephant on the wall and thought, “Oh, he’s from India, not Iran; that makes sense, because an Iranian would be more assertive than this guy. And he’s definitely not the owner.”

By the time he next visited our table, I’d concluded that all my predictions were wrong. I reluctantly asked him who owned the restaurant.

“I do.”

“Is it your first place?”

“Yes, but my family owned several successful restaurants in Iran. We sold them to come to America.” Turning to Cynthia he said, “and you are from Texas.” Cynthia, who has no Texas accent whatever, asked how he knew.

“You have Texas eyes.”

No matter how I so accurately guessed his status at the restaurant, his country of origin, and his family history, and no matter how he knew Cynthia was from Texas, we did know. But is that methodology something I’d bet my life on? I do it every day, and so do you, and I’d have done no better with conscious logic.

Cynthia also talked about what she called “car body language,” her ability to predict the likely movements of cars. “I know when a car is about to edge over into my lane without signaling. I know when a car will or won’t turn left in front of me.” Most people gladly accept this ability and travel every day with absolute confidence in their car-reading skill. Clearly they are actually expert at reading people, but because we can’t see the whole person, we read his intent, level of attentiveness, competence, sobriety, caution, all through the medium of the tiny movements of those big metal objects around them.

 

So, we think: We can predict what kangaroos and children and cars might do, but we cannot predict human behavior to save our lives.

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China Leonard’s story is not about violence. It is, however, about life and death, and about the denial of intuition. She and her young son, Richard, had just settled into the pre-op room at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Richard was soon to have minor ear surgery. He usually had a barrage of questions for doctors, but when the anesthesiologist, Dr. Joseph Verbrugge Jr., came into the room, the boy fell silent. He didn’t even answer when Dr. Verbrugge asked if he was nervous. “Look at me!” the doctor demanded, but Richard didn’t respond.

 

The boy obviously disliked the abrupt and unpleasant doctor, and China felt the same way, but she also felt something more than that. A strong intuitive impulse crossed her mind: “Cancel the operation,” it boldly said, “Cancel the operation.” She quickly suppressed that impulse and began a mental search for why it was unsound. Setting aside her intuition about Dr. Verbrugge in favor of logic and reason, she assured herself that you can’t judge someone by his personality. But again, that impulse: “Cancel the operation.” Since China Leonard was not a worrier, it took some effort to silence her inner voice. Don’t be silly, she thought, St. Joseph’s is one of the best hospitals in the state, it’s a teaching hospital; it’s owned by the Sisters of Charity, for Christ’s sake. You just have to assume this doctor is good.

With her intuition successfully beaten down, the operation went forward as scheduled, and Richard died during the minor procedure. It is a sad story that teaches us that the words “I know it” are more valuable than the words “I knew it.”

Later, it was revealed that Dr. Verbrugge’s colleagues had also been concerned about him. They said he was inattentive to his work, and, most seriously, there were at least six occasions when colleagues reported that he appeared to be sleeping during surgeries. For the hospital staff, these were clear signals, but I can’t be certain what China and her son detected. I know only that they were perfectly accurate, and I accept that as good enough.

There were people right at the operating table who heard and then vetoed their intuition. The surgeon told Verbrugge that Richard’s breathing was labored, but Verbrugge did nothing effective. A nurse said she was getting concerned with the boy’s distress but “chose to believe” that Verbrugge was competent.

One of the doctors who reviewed how people had performed in that operating room could have been speaking about denial in general when he astutely said: “It’s like waking up in your house with a room full of smoke, opening the window to let the smoke out, and then going back to bed.”

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I’ve seen many times that after the shock of violence has begun to heal, victims will be carried in their minds back to that hallway or parking lot, back to the sights, smells and sounds, back to the time when they still had choices, before they fell under someone’s malevolent control, before they refused the gift of fear. Often they will say about some particular detail, “I realize this now, but I didn’t know it then.” Of course, if it is in their heads now, so was it then. What they mean is that they only now accept the significance. This has taught me that the intuitive process works, though often not as well as its principal competitor, the denial process.

 

With denial, the details we need for the best predictions float silently by us like life preservers, but while the man overboard may enjoy the comfortable belief that he is still in his stateroom, there is soon a price to pay for his daydream. I know a lot about this; I spent half my childhood and half my adulthood practicing prediction while perfecting denial.







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