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Are you intuitive – or delusional?


December 17, 2014
By Corrie Sloot

I recently began watching old episodes of the British TV series In a nutshell (in case you’re not familiar with the series), Chief Inspector Morse appears to have no first name, is generally cranky, went to Oxford, loves opera and drinks too much.

The series mostly takes place in the 1980s so it’s full of people with big hair, even bigger shoulder pads and no cell phones. Aside from these details however, it has one thing in common with many TV police shows: an officer with an uncanny ability for picking up cues and clues that others miss. Sullen and cynical he may be, but he seems to understand people and their motives.

TV writers are often attracted to the idea that some people have this uncanny ability to perceive – consider <CSI, NCIS, Barney Miller, Blue Bloods> and many others. In contrast, the lead character on is a forensic anthropologist most noted for her complete inability to “read” people – although fortunately she has a police/FBI sidekick who more than compensates for her weakness in this area.

I doubt if TV writers are familiar with the concept, but what they are typically trying to convey in these intuitive and uncanny police officers is a characteristic know as social cognition. The term refers to the manner in which people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations.

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On the surface, one would think that if several people were in the same room talking to the same people, they would all come away with the same understanding of what went on, but we know this is not true. There are some groups who really struggle with social cognition – people with Asperger disorder and autism and some with schizophrenia. They may not catch the subtleties (or “insinuedos,” as Archie Bunker was prone to saying), may take things said very literally and may have difficulty with some forms of humour.

On the opposite end of the scale are very intuitive people who pick on up nuances that the rest of us miss and connect the dots even when they are not obvious. These people are called… I have no idea. I don’t think there is a name for them.

Police officers (and psychologists) rely on social cognition in almost every encounter. Consider a pretty ordinary situation: you are called to the scene of a run-of-the-mill B & E. No big deal. The homeowners left the patio door unlocked and a bunch of electronics were stolen. The female occupant is furious at the male for his alleged carelessness (which he denies); teen age offspring roll their eyes. There have been several other similar events in this neighborhood recently; what else is new?

Where does social cognition come in?

Do you believe what the homeowners are saying or figure they cooked up this whole thing for the insurance money? Why would you think that? Are the residents far more – or less – traumatized by this incident than you would expect given the circumstances? Why? Are the teenagers just being normal or does their behaviour suggest there is more to this story than appears on the surface? Does it seem odd that this house, and these particular possessions, were targeted?

In the series, Morse (who looks to be in his 50’s) is accompanied by Sgt. Lewis, an earnest and significantly younger colleague often surprised by Morse’s keen and insightful observations. Morse just seems to have that ability to “read” people. Maybe Lewis will acquire it (we will never know as the series ended). It certainly is possible to acquire greater skill in this area but there does seem to be an innate component.

Our ability to form accurate social judgements about others is influenced by our attitudes, openness to alterative explanations, cultural background and ability to understand the cultures from which other people come. There’s also our ability to remember and make decisions, our behavioural experience in similar situations and biases and assumptions about human behaviour.

Personal experience is a key element of social cognition because much of what we do is learned from watching others as opposed to doing something ourselves. Like many concepts in psychology, social cognition theory seems to run in circles a little. Our perceptions of others are strongly influenced by who we are and how we think – our own experiences – but our ideas of who we are and how we think are strongly influenced by how others perceive us. While you are sizing up the homeowners and the teenagers, and maybe eventually the alleged culprit, they are similarly sizing you up.

In preparing to write this column, I did an extensive review of all the research that has been done about social cognition in police officers. That was pretty easy. As far as I can tell, there is very little and it is confined to looking at very specific issues. Much of the literature is related to issues around racial bias and stereotyping by police officers. Some of it has to do with impairments in social cognition in officers with post traumatic stress disorder.

I was a little surprised that there is so little research in this area as social cognition is clearly an asset in many aspects of police work. I was hoping there would be some definitive study of what constitutes “good” or “better” social cognition and maybe an article about how to identify people more likely to get it right. Presumably these folks would become uncannily good detectives.

Eventually it occurred to me that we can never know who is good at this because we really never know the right answer when we ask questions about other people’s motives and behaviours. If it turns out that the aforementioned homeowners really are doing a scam, how can we explain that? I suppose we can ask the homeowners to explain their rationale for their behaviour, but do we believe them? Do they even know? Can they articulate it? Are they aware of their own biases and subjectivity? Or are they telling us what they think we want to hear?

It gets even more complicated because we often never find out if our assumptions and intuitions are correct. We may be absolutely sure that this family is telling the truth – but that does not mean we are right. As in all areas of human endeavour, we are unfortunately not very good at assessing ourselves – so if you are one of the people who think you are better than average at reading other people, the likelihood is that you are wrong about that.

Alas, as it turns out, TV is not the same as real life. Drat.


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