Intuition or confabulation?

Billion Chinese cannot be wrong. Except, occasionally they are. Can we predict when the wisdom of crowds will fail? Can we benefit from it? Today you can read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wisdom of crowds

When a group of people sees something that they have never discussed, they can be surprisingly accurate. Their guesses will form some pretty accurate statistical distribution, say Gaussian, around the value they need to evaluate. The average value they will state will correspond to the actual number. This is a statistical law of large numbers in action.

Ask 1000 people to evaluate the number of gums in a jar or the weight of a person in front of them. Each person will be wrong, but the crowd on average will be surprisingly right.

Notice the limitations of the experiment: people use their senses and not logic, the object is in front of their eyes, there are no iterations or information sharing. This makes the judgments statistically uncorrelated.

Our intuition may be surprisingly accurate if it was not tampered with.


Now we can run a more complex experiment. Divide the group of people into three subgroups. One subgroup will guess as before, another will think about large numbers, and the third one will think about small numbers. The guess of the unprepared group that is probably accurate, but the other two groups will be likely to be biased. This “priming” is sometimes used in negotiations. The first estimate has a surprisingly strong effect regarding the final number both sides agree on. The higher the initial number, the higher the final settlement will be.

In most situations, people do not just bring their common sense. They are subject to various publications and media that shape their senses in different ways.

The intuition we have is influenced by our experiences immediately prior to forming an opinion.


Since ancient times, white color is associated with good and black color with bad. Possibly that’s because people used to hunt during the day and be hunted during the night. The archetype is ubiquitous, and it is also applied to animals and human beings. Black cats are not evil. People with darker skin generate more concerns than people with white skin. Blonds are judged as harmless and more approachable.

Any stereotype, innate or acquired, will likely bias our judgment. Sometimes our stereotypes will become self-fulfilling prophecies. More often we simply offend others and fail in our judgment. Our stereotypes are not only measurable but also predictable. In fact, we try to apply corrective bias to deal with disparity, which results in a more reasonable reaction with a significantly longer response time.

Real intuition should be immediate. If we wait, we process the information unconsciously: for example to unbias our stereotypes.


Some stereotypes are generated over time by people sharing the same beliefs with each other. Beliefs are somewhat contagious. If we believe in something, our friends will be inclined to share our beliefs. And then their friend. Eventually, we will get our own beliefs reflected to us from many different individuals. Then we may modify our beliefs to match the beliefs of others. Eventually, connected groups produce stable beliefs.

Other groups are likely to form their own beliefs. This generates huge clusters with different political inclination (republicans vs democrats), religious beliefs, scientific paradigms. Each of these beliefs appears to be self-evident. I “know” that humans and monkeys developed from a common ancestor, others claim that humans developed from monkeys, or that the whole known universe was created by something around 5780 years ago.

It is hard for me to believe in a different paradigm. I secretly find people that think differently naive or over-imaginative regarding the subjects where we disagree.

Most of us cannot distinguish common sense, science, and confabulation. 

Collective unconscious

Unconscious thoughts and beliefs can be shared among large groups of people. Some of these are called “archetypes“. Certain archetypes may only be inferred indirectly from stories, art, myths, religions, or dreams. In our time all of these are substituted by social media. Jung also believed in meaningful coincidences as a phenomenon similar to quantum entanglement.

In the 21st century, computers are a part of our collective unconscious. Algorithmic filter bubbles of search engines and social media, cultural firewalls of China and Russia, super-personalized advertising… Our collective unconscious is shaped by forces we created, but do not fully understand. We know enough to understand that different algorithms influence each other, synchronizing their influence on us.

Our intuition might be an unintended side-product of some search algorithms we do not fully understand.

Freedom of choice

Our future is somewhat confabulated by our innate data, the factors of our education, the influence of the various algorithms. Quite often the algorithms can predict what we do, well before we can predict ourselves. It is like an omniscient god is watching us, knows what we are likely to do, and yet allows us freedom of choice.

This freedom of choice was very confusing for medieval scholars, but now it is pretty clear. Every distribution allows for rare events. Even when we make a rare choice, it is usually still within the parameters of the distribution.

There is a way to overcome the overwhelming predictability. It has a lot to do with creativity. As we introduce new dimensions not foreseen by others, our judgment is influenced by different parameters. These dimensions often come from unpredictable perspectives or new knowledge. Simply having IQ above 140, deep knowledge in a specific domain or other outliers beyond 4-sigma range, may be significant enough to provide us free choice.

Our choices become truly unexpected only when we become outliers of the statistics either by a creative outburst or by our basic characteristics. 


Whatever choices we make, they are often justified a-priory by the way we evolved, or a-posteriori to feel better with the choice. Maybe we are not fully aware of this justification and can present serious logic and inference. These logical chains are not infinite, and there are always assumptions underlying the logic.

If we believe in something farfetched we become unique, and this uniqueness may be satisfying. We are a source of “knowledge” for other people. This way we form and propagate conspiracy theories.

We can create a fictional story of our own lives, and eventually, believe in it. This confabulation is often weaponized by lobbyists and espionage groups. Honest people will confabulate to avoid facing traumatic events or to look better in their own eyes. We can further offer plausible explanations. The easiest way to confabulate involves previous lives: true or imaginary events nobody can check. As long as they are consistent, they can be used to motivate us or as cautionary tales.

Quite often we confabulate even very simple consumer choices. I quote: “Even if the accurate explanation were available to us, it would be unlikely to play the same self-enhancing and self-integrating role as the confabulatory explanation. Explaining consumer choice based on an unconscious tendency to favor items on our right-hand side does not support the sense that we are competent and coherent agents. Confabulation `compromises our understanding of reality and of ourselves, but, when it comes to supporting agency, it often fares better than a well-grounded explanation, or even the accurate one.”

Why do we lie?

I quote 5 different reasons for so-called “white lies”:
1. The lie does matter … to them
2. Telling the truth feels like giving up control.
3. They don’t want to disappoint you.
4. Lies snowball.
5. It’s not a lie to them.
6. They want it to be true.

I other words, good people will often lie simply because they want to believe in something, hoping that this does not really matter. Not all people are good.

For example, a scientist may pose a hypothesis suggesting that something might happen. Others misinterpret the hypothesis as prediction and the scientist is glorified. He is asked to provide proofs but he has none. So he dismisses the request. Occasionally the proof is found only after 300 years.

A person with great intuition may voice hypothesis, so others will be able to prove them.

Fake news

While we are likely to be less objective than we think, we pay a price for it. I am not even talking about the unethical spread of unjustified beliefs. We become gullible.

We might use confabulation to make ourselves feel better. Others will spread propaganda and fake news to manipulate our choices. The fake news may backfire or may place inadequate decision-makers in a prominent position. To stay away fro president Trump’s controversy, I quote from ancient history:
The Qin state bribed Guo Kai a Zhao minister, to sow discord between King Qian of Zhaoand Li Mu. The king doubted Li Mu’s loyalty and ordered Li Mu to hand over his authority to his deputies, Zhao Cong and Yan Ju. When Li Mu refused to obey, the king became more suspicious of him and ordered his men to take Li Mu by surprise and capture him. Li Mu was executed in prison later on in King Qian’s order. In 228 BC, after learning that Li Mu had been replaced, the Qin forces attacked, defeated the Zhao army, and conquered Dongyang  Zhao Cong was killed in action”.

Our intuition may be weaponized to manipulate us. Beware…


I want to summarize this article in some way on a positive scientific note. I quote:
“Stephen Porges explains neuroception as the continuous subconscious assessment by the autonomic nervous system of the safety or danger of any given moment. A neuroception of danger will occur before there is conscious awareness and will trigger defensive behaviors even when there is an absence of any rational decision of threat. Regardless of any rational cause, our psyches and bodies will respond and there will be a defensive reaction. Intuition is a powerful aid in our discernment and decision making. In fact, there is research that demonstrates the power and accuracy of this process1; and that it comes before the more analytic process. Shy away from what’s uncomfortable and you will be better served by your intuition.”



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