SOCIAL INSTINCTS - GUT FEELINGS IN ACTION - Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious - Gerd Gigerenzer

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious - Gerd Gigerenzer (2007)


Always laugh when people start to laugh, even though you don’t understand why. The quicker, the better.

—A Japanese undergraduate at Princeton


A friend told me the story of an American professor who wears the shortest skirts of any fifty-five-year-old woman he knows. While on a trip to Paris, she, a practicing Catholic, visited churches and attended masses. In one large church, visitors were separated from the pews in which people were participating in the service. Arranging to meet up with her friends later, she went to attend the service. She was the last person in a long line to take Communion, and when she finally made it into the first row, she saw the corpse of a man laid out in a coffin. All of those in front of her kissed his hands. When it was her turn, she nervously made the sign of the cross and stepped back. She then noticed that the black-clad widow and the other women were staring at her. Since she understood some French, she overheard the widow lamenting that she had always believed that her husband had no mistress and had never asked questions when he came home late. And now this! The men on the other side of the church were chuckling and nudging each other, admiring her short skirt and thinking the same thing. After all, mistresses go last in line to pay respect to the deceased. The poor professor did not know what to do; given her inadequate French and lack of time, she didn’t see how to explain the situation. Deeply embarrassed, she made her way out of the church.

To an alien from Mars with no social instincts, not much would seem to have happened: the professor was in the wrong location, realized her mistake, and left. Humans with autism exhibit a similar factual view of the matter. Yet the common Homo sapiens is a social animal with a faculty for drawing quick conclusions about the dynamics of social life including betrayal, trust, and reputation. Not only do we have this capacity to go beyond the information given, but we are unable not to use it. We cannot stop making inferences about others. This capacity has been called social intelligence or, emphasizing its manipulative potential, Machiavellian intelligence.

But what makes us socially intelligent? According to the hypothesis of social intelligence, the social environments in which humans evolved were more complex, challenging, and unpredictable than the physical environments; therefore, this complex environment created intellectual faculties of the highest order: calculating minds that “must be able to calculate the consequences of their own behavior, to calculate the likely behavior of others, and to calculate the balance of advantage and loss.”1 In this view, the better one can read the minds of others, the more social IQ points one has. A man assesses whether a woman believes that he is in love with her; she reckons what he believes that she believes his intentions are; then he gauges what she thinks that he thinks that she thinks that he thinks what she is going to do, and so on. The more, the better. This hypothesis is based on the popular assumption that complex problems always require intricate and deliberate thought. Yet, as you may by now expect, this is not necessarily so.

I think most social interaction is, rather than the product of complex calculation, the result of special gut feelings that I call social instincts.


If a party guest argues that humans are by nature selfish, this is often taken as clear-eyed realism. In fact, many second the view that we are driven by one and only one question: “What’s in it for me?” Theories of selfish egoism are hard to refute; even if people sacrifice their own interests to help others, it can be easily argued that they did so merely to feel good. I would grant that we sometimes act selfishly. Yet I also think the understanding of human nature can be improved by the realization that people carry more than one driving motivation. Selfishness is actually in conflict with two basic social instincts.

Until the spread of agriculture some ten thousand years ago, humans seem to have lived in relatively small groups. It is in these small social networks that our social instincts were shaped, the two basic ones being a family instinct and a (community) tribal instinct.2 We share the first with our primate ancestors, whereas the second is genuinely human.

Family instinct: Take care of your kin.

Community instinct: Identify with a symbolic group, cooperate, and defend its members.

If everyone were selfish, there would be no family instinct, and, in fact many animal species appear not to have one. Most reptiles as we’ve seen care neither for their relatives nor their offspring after birth; some even treat them like prey. In contrast, social insects such as ants have been held up as models of sharing, caring, and community-minded creatures. Why would ants forgo reproduction to help rear the queen’s offspring? That question puzzled Darwin. Today’s answer is the principle of kin selection, in which individual selfishness is overcome by a disposition for helping one’s relatives. In this view, if you had to choose between saving your life or the lives of your two brothers, you would be indifferent, but for three brothers you would sacrifice your life and save theirs. Your brother shares half of your genes, so from your genes’ point of view, the lives of two brothers are as good as yours, but those of three are better.3

In reality, genes don’t always get their way, but aunts and uncles do tend to invest in their nieces and nephews more than in other kids, even if they complain that the spoiled brat doesn’t deserve it. The monarchy is the archetype of government by family instinct, with princes and princesses being privileged by kinship rather than merit. In many traditional societies, as mentioned before, nepotism is not a crime but a familial obligation. This family instinct infects governments when politicians promote their sons, sisters, or brothers because they are kin rather than the best person for the job.

The community instinct, however, makes us different from all other animals. It enables us to identify with a larger, symbolically marked group of people, such as a tribe, a religion, or nationality. Most people long to belong to a social group beyond their family, and emotionally attach themselves to this group, be it Texans, Shriners, or Harvard alumni. Many are willing to live and die for their ethnic group or their religion. The weird fact that many men’s emotional life rotates around a ball—baseball, basketball, or football—seems to spring from the same community instinct. If you get excited by watching your home team, be it the Red Sox or the Buffalo Bills, but feel little stimulation in watching the games played by other teams, even if the quality is higher, then you follow your tribal instinct. If your first pleasure is the quality of the game, rather than the success of your home team, you have freed your love of sports from your tribal identification. Few have. When the American press reports on the Olympics, they report almost solely on American athletes, even if someone else won the events, while the Italian media report on Italians, and so on. Team sports, it seems, are not about sports per se but exist to satisfy our community instinct.

Why did this community instinct evolve? Darwin proposed one answer:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.4

Consistent with Darwin’s view, anthropological studies indicate that most traditional human cultures are tightly regulated by social norms that support loyalty and generosity toward all members of the group, and so reduce internal conflict.5 Conformity is secured with respect and cooperation, and deviance is punished with disrespect, ridicule, and the withdrawal of cooperation. In a war, sacrificing one’s life for the group without hesitation is praised as heroism. Those who deviate from this standard of conduct are censored and punished by the others, but the norms are usually so internalized that they do not require enforcement.

The community instinct, however, has not eliminated the older family instinct, and the two can sharply conflict. When a politician arranges for relatives to occupy key political positions or even creates a dynasty, his family instinct may do disservice to the country. Wartime sets up another forum for these conflicting instincts. When parents send their offspring to war, feelings of patriotism and loyalty conflict with feelings of responsibility for their children. Moral outrage can result when powerful people manage to place their family interests over their loyalty to their country, such as when the news spread that out of all U.S. senators and congressmen only one had a son fighting in Iraq.

Identification and competition are two sides of the same coin. Community instincts cannot be put to work unless there are competing tribes that are easily distinguishable from each other. Dialects and skin color are often used to define the borders between communities, but more often there are symbolic markers. These include dress codes, religious objects, and flags. Men have given their lives to defend precious religious objects from misuse or flags from being captured. It appears that any symbol can be used to define a group, even when it’s arbitrarily created. The minimal group experiments by social psychologist Henri Tajfel demonstrated this phenomenon. Of Polish-Jewish parentage, Tajfel lost nearly all of his family and friends in the Holocaust and developed an abiding interest in how group identities are formed, how genocide can happen, and how to end the suffering of those who are in the wrong group at the wrong time: Jews in an anti-Semitic world, foreigners in a xenophobic country, or women in a sexist culture. In his experiments, he randomly divided people into groups. No matter what group a person happened to be in, he or she quickly began to discriminate in favor of the “ingroup” members and against the “outgroup” people. Yet, if asked, people were not always aware of why they did what they did. Similar to the after-the-fact justification of the split-brain patients, ingroup members justified their discriminating behavior with rational arguments about how unpleasant and immoral the outgroup people were. These experiments investigated under controlled conditions what one can observe in many schoolyards. Watch how children tend to spontaneously form groups, stand together, and treat those not in the gang.

The community instinct is based on reciprocity. In The Descent of Man, Darwin arrived at the conclusion that reciprocity was the foundation stone of morality. Darwin called reciprocity—what I give to you, you will return to me—a social instinct. The exchange can be of goods or money but also of moral approval and disapproval. I support your beliefs, struggles, and sacred values, and I expect that you support mine in return. Social contracts are based on the combination of trust and reciprocity. Tit for tat, for instance, is a way to interact with others in which one trusts first, and then reciprocates (see chapter 3). I trust you by providing you with something, and I expect that you reciprocate in kind. In contrast, blind trust would not work in a society over the long run because cheaters would emerge to take the benefits without paying the costs. Therefore, the human mind also has a machinery of capabilities for protecting social contracts against exploitation. One is an automatic attention device that spots situations in which one is being cheated.6 To detect and expel these cheaters, the human mind needs capacities such as face and voice recognition, as well as emotional devices such as feelings of guilt, ridicule, anger, and punishment.

The family instinct that favors kin and the community instinct that favors identification with unrelated members of symbolic groups are two roots of moral and altruistic behavior. These basic instincts are put to work by special social abilities such as those that allow us to detect cheaters and to trust. Let’s have a closer look at trust, the cement of society.


A man’s facial expression provides cues for inferring whether he is trustworthy or not. These cues were exploited in the successful 1960 Democratic election campaign against the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. It showed a picture of Nixon, thin lipped, unshaven, with dark shadows under his eyes. The caption read: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Trust ranks high in a modern democracy. Despite fancy information technology, a flourishing insurance industry, and a jungle of laws, few economic transactions and personal relations could thrive without at least some measure of trust in the other.

One might think that trust has always been the cement of social life, as people complain that only in the good old days could they count on others. Yet as cultural historian Ute Frevert has argued, trust in fellow humans is conspicuously rare in premodern societies.7 Martin Luther warned people against trusting each other and admonished them to trust in God. During the nineteenth century, however, while trust in God declined, social trust grew—albeit only between certain groups of people. Men trusted men, the husband his wife, family members other family members, but trust between unmarried men and women was viewed with suspicion. Various changes in the structure of work and the transition of living in relatively small towns to large cities made trust a central issue: the new large-scale division of labor that forced workers to rely on each other; larger groups of people in which it was harder to keep tabs on everyone; and increasing mobility. Primitive societies get by with less trust: in small groups, it is possible to watch each other all the time. The more you are able to control and predict the behavior of others, the less need you have for trust.

Cooperation in an uncertain technological world requires a tremendous amount of trust, making it the lifeblood of a modern community instinct. We entrust our money to banks, open the door when the doorbell rings, and give our credit card number to strangers on the phone. If we find our home robbed by someone, we feel angry, but when the robber is our baby-sitter, we feel both angry and betrayed. The injury inflicted by the baby-sitter, destroying trust, is both material and psychological. Without trust, there would be no lasting large-scale cooperation between people, little trade, and few happy couples. Why is that? Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world there is nothing certain but death and taxes.” Social uncertainty in large societies is the problem that trust can and does help to resolve.


“If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said,” remarked Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, to a congressman. Another of his famous rejoinders was “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”8 It is not always possible to tell whether Greenspan spoke his mind on these occasions or wanted to preserve the legend surrounding his Delphic language, known as Greenspanese. As much as Greenspan was admired as a “macroeconomic magician,” it was clear that once he left office, nobody would be able to continue his policy—all his tacit knowledge and expert hunches seem to be buried in his mind.

Mervyn King is governor of the Bank of England and hence the British equivalent of the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in the United States. Over lunch, he told me the following story. When he joined the Bank of England, he asked Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan’s predecessor, whether he could advise him on how to succeed in his new job. Volcker gave his advice in one word: “mystique.” King, however, decided against this policy and chose the opposite approach to dealing with the public: transparency. When the Bank of England estimates next year’s inflation rate, it does not just present a number, such as 1.2 percent, as if it were an undisputed fact. Rather, it posts the board discussion on the Internet, including all arguments in favor of or against an estimate, making the decision processes accessible to everyone. The Bank also makes it clear that the prediction is not certain, as a single number would suggest, and specifies the region of uncertainty, such as between .8 percent and 1.5 percent. When King introduced this transparent system, some politicians reacted in surprise: “Are you saying that you cannot predict with certainty?” The truth is that certainty is an illusion. Being open about uncertainties can help prevent crises by alerting policy makers to the problems on the horizon. Within a decade, the policy of transparency turned the Bank of England into one of the most trusted institutions in Britain. When King leaves office, everyone will know how to continue his policy. In King’s words, “Transparency is not simply a question of making available certain data. It is an approach to economic policy, almost a way of life.”9

In some countries, politicians are advised to withhold any trace of uncertainty from the public under the pretense of “protecting” their citizens as if they were children. Yet the public is intelligent enough to see through this game, and such politicians create a climate of disbelief that generates public disinterest and political apathy. A Gallup Poll surveyed citizens across forty-seven countries and found that parliaments and congresses, supposedly the key democratic bodies, were the least trusted of all institutions.10 Even global companies and trade unions elicited more confidence.

The policies of mystique and illusionary certainty damage public trust in institutions and compliance with the law. As the case of the Bank of England shows, there is a viable alternative, transparency, that can create both trust and an informed citizenry.


If you have ever opened a book on decision making, you have likely run across the idea that the human mind is an ever-busy accountant of pros and cons making dozens or even hundreds of decisions a day. Wouldn’t it be more realistic to ask how people can avoid making decisions all the time? No mind or machine should try to make all decisions by itself, given the limited information and time at its disposal.11Often it is reasonable to ask for others’ advice, or not to ask at all but simply to imitate their behavior. Many Americans change their clothes once or even twice a day, whereas most Europeans wear them for several days before washing them. No matter what norm of cleanliness is followed, it is not decided upon every morning but is a habit that results from copying others. As children, we imitate what Mom and Dad eat and how they talk; later in life we follow public and professional role models. Imitation is not simply a shortcut for deliberate decisions when one has little knowledge and time, but is one of the three processes—the others being teaching and language—that allow for the vast cultural transmission of information over generations. Without these, every child would have to start from scratch in the world and learn by individual experience. Most animals live without this kind of cultural learning. Even in other primates, there is limited imitation, little teaching, and only rudimentary forms of language. I shall distinguish two basic forms of imitation:12

Do what the majority of your peers do.

Do what a successful person does.

If you find an eccentric person admirable and begin to imitate her extravagant ways rather than those of your more conventional friends, you are not following the majority. If, however, you find her behavior intolerable and act like your other friends, you are. This rule of thumb shapes our intuitions about what we want and dislike, respect and scorn. We are prone to join unquestioningly the screams of Rolling Stones fans or the roaring hordes of Harley-Davidson bikers if that’s what our peers do. Imitation of the majority satisfies the community instinct, because belonging to a group creates comfortable conformity and a distinction from outside groups. Similarly, imitating a successful group member can enhance future status in that group, and if others do the same, also strengthens conformity.

Neither form of imitation is good or bad per se. In technological invention and industrial design, imitating the successful is a major strategy. The Wright brothers successfully relied on this copycat rule by patterning their flight machines after Octave Chanute’s glider, whereas others were doomed to fail by trying instead to imitate the flight of the albatross and the bat. The success of imitation depends again on the structure of the environment. Structural features that can make imitation adaptive include

· a relatively stable environment,

· lack of feedback, and

· dangerous consequences for mistakes.

Imitation can pay in a stable environment. How should a son run his father’s company? When the business world in which the company operates is relatively stable, the son may be well advised to imitate the successful father, rather than starting from scratch by introducing new policies with unknown consequences.

Imitation can also pay in a world with little feedback. We often cannot find out whether an action we took was actually better than the alternative we did not take. Will children become better moral beings if parents are strict or if they are allowed to do whatever they want? The answer is almost impossible to find out by experience. Most people have only a few children, and it takes a long time to see the results of their upbringing. And even then parents still do not know what the results would have been if they had acted differently. Limited feedback is typical for unique decisions, such as what to do after college, and for repeated events whose consequences can only be observed after a long time, such as lifestyle. In these cases, imitation can pay, whereas individual learning has its natural limits.

Imitation can also pay in situations with dangerous consequences. Food choice is a case in point. Relying only on individual experience to learn which berries found in the forest are poisonous is obviously a bad strategy. Here, imitation can save your life—although it may cause false alarms. When I was a boy, I was told on good authority never to drink water after eating cherries or I would get very sick or even die. Where I grew up, everyone acted this way, and so did I. Nobody asked why. One day I shared an ample serving of cherries with a British friend who had never heard of this danger. When he reached for a glass of water, I tried to stop him and save his life, but he only laughed. He took a sip, and nothing happened, curing me of that belief. I still won’t reheat mushrooms, however, simply because I’ve been warned that doing so is dangerous.

When is imitation futile? As mentioned before, when the world is quickly changing, imitation can be inferior to individual learning. Consider once again the son who inherits his father’s firm and copies his successful practices, which have made a fortune over decades. Yet when the environment changes quickly, as in the globalization of the market, the formerly winning strategy can cause bankruptcy. In general, imitating traditional practice tends to be successful when changes are slow, and futile when changes are fast.


Imitation is a fast way to acquire the skills and values of a culture and to keep cultural evolution in motion. If everyone imitated everyone, however, change would be impossible. Social change, it seems, can be the product of psychological factors as well as of economic and evolutionary processes.13

Not Knowing the Rules Can Change the Rules

Social change has been brought about by multiple means, including admirable acts of individual courage. In 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, she was arrested for violating the city’s racial segregation law. Black activists, led by the young Martin Luther King Jr., boycotted the transit system for more than a year, during which King’s home was dynamited and his family threatened, until they achieved the goal of desegregating the bus system. Parks’s decision can be said to have ignited the U.S. civil rights movement. Her courage in not following the law and her willingness to undergo punishment for an ideal provide inspiring examples of the psychological factors that promote change. Yet there are more unlikely candidates.

A dear friend of mine is a professor at a leading American university and is now on the verge of retiring after a brilliant career. After becoming a teenage beauty queen, she focused her time and attention on her studies and in the mid-1950s completed her B.A. with distinction. After getting her degree, she asked her adviser what she needed to do next to have the academic career she envisioned and whether he would write her a letter of recommendation for Harvard and Yale. The adviser looked at her with astonishment: “My dear, you are a woman! No. I will not write a recommendation. You are much too smart. You might take away a job from a man.” My friend was shocked and close to tears. She had never realized that there was a simple reason why all of her professors were male: women were not meant to be in this profession. When her adviser so adamantly rejected her request, she felt no anger about the unwritten rules of male academia but was instead deeply embarrassed by her faux pas. Overwhelmed by her emotional reaction and determination, however, her other professors decided to do what they would have done for a male student, and wrote her recommendations. Eventually she became one of the first female professors in her field. Her innocent ignorance helped to open the door for her career, and she became a role model for many women. I suspect that if she had been more conscious of her place as a female in male academia, as other women were, she might not have even tried.

The power of ignorance to speed up social change is a common plot in literature. Among the many heroes in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, Siegfried is the most clueless one. Siegfried grows up without parental care. He is the naive hero who acts impulsively, whose adventures happen to him, rather than being deliberately planned. Siegfried’s combination of ignorance and fearlessness is the weapon that eventually brings down the rule of the Gods. Similar to Siegfried is Parsifal, the hero of Wagner’s last work. Brought up by his mother in a lonely forest, he knows nothing about the world when he begins his quest for the Holy Grail. The strength of Siegfried, Parsifal, and similar characters lies in their not knowing the laws that rule the social world. Like my colleague when she was young, the naive hero has a seemingly reckless and childlike disregard for social conventions. Ignorance of the status quo, and so a lack of respect for it, is a great weapon with which to revolutionize the social order.

These heroes’ intuitive actions were based on missing knowledge, but the gut feeling “I can do it!” can succeed even when based on false information. Christopher Columbus had problems financing his dream of finding a western sea route to India. His contemporaries believed he had miscalculated the distance to India, and they were right. Though Columbus knew that the earth was round, he widely underestimated its radius. Eventually Columbus got the funds, sailed off, and came across something else: America. Had he known that India was so far away, he might not have even set sail. Note that Columbus himself did not see his discovery as serendipity; he insisted up to his death that he had made it to India.

Can one use the positive potential of ignorance systematically rather than accidentally? For instance, when I became director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, I “inherited” several staff members from my predecessor. Immediately, well-meaning people offered to give me the details on the staff’s social and professional flaws. I declined. My policy was not to try to know everything about my employees but to give them a chance for change. Professional tensions are created not only by individual staff members but also by the environment in which they work, including those people who volunteer to complain about them. Since I was creating a new environment, these employees were given a chance to escape the picture others made of them—a chance they all took.

Ignorance can be powerful but is not a value per se. It can help to promote social change in situations like those described here, but it is far from a universal recipe. All of my stories involve substantial degrees of uncertainty or social unpredictability; ignorance would be of little help in routine day-to-day problem solving where efficiency and expertise are wanted.


On the British Isle of Wight in 2003, conditions on the school bus got very bad.14 Pupils were fighting, abusing each other, even throwing seats out of the windows and distracting the driver from paying attention to the road. The behavior of a minority of children was putting the safety of everyone else at risk. The bus drivers did not like to leave the troublemakers at the roadside, but eventually found themselves forced to do that or call the police. But even these harsh measures didn’t help. The crime and disorder manager for the Isle of Wight then introduced a simple but effective measure. She separated the rowdy boys from their peers and transported them in a pink bus called the “Pink Peril.” The bus and its color were carefully selected. It was the oldest vehicle the company owned, had no heating, and had been painted the color regarded as most uncool by boys, who made up most of the troublemakers. Unruly pupils were embarrassed to be seen on the bus, and either covered their faces or slouched down below the windows to prevent people from staring at them. As a result, there was a substantial reduction in violent bus incidents. Embarrassment proved to be more effective than the methods of the police.

The idea of using social emotion as a deterrent rather than physical punishment is nothing new. In medieval Europe, various offenders were forced to wear masks of shame to publicly display their misdemeanors. A flute-of-shame mask was for bad musicians, a swine mask for men treating women poorly, and a hood of shame for bad students. Designing environments that elicit offenders’ emotions—embarrassment, shame, and feelings of guilt—can be a powerful way to deal with deviant behavior, whatever its causes are.

Ridicule is another effective instrument for influencing people’s behavior and beliefs. In the Bavarian town where my grandfather lived, people often had difficulties in sleeping and woke up from nightmares, which made them dread falling asleep again. The cause of this widespread suffering was common knowledge: a witchlike being, with hairy hands and feet, called the Trud. In the night, while you slept, she would sit on your chest so heavily that you could barely breathe. She particularly liked to plague pregnant women and deer. In Bavaria and Austria there was an elaborate folklore of stories about men and women suffering the torments of the Trud, some even being killed by suffocation. As with other folklore, it was hard to refute the reality of the Trud, since so many adults had encountered her. Rational arguments against her existence proved ineffective or were thrust aside.

All that changed during World War II, when soldiers were put up in towns all across Bavaria. They took quarter in farmhouses and shared meals with the host family and their servants. Over dinner, some farmer complained about waking up in the night out of breath because the Trud was, once again, sitting on his chest. The soldiers at the table had never heard of the Trud before and began to chuckle. The locals insisted on the truth of their story, but the soldiers responded with bursts of laughter. After a few outbursts, the embarrassed locals stopped talking about the Trud for fear of being ridiculed. The silent farmers may have continued to believe in her existence, but the fact that they no longer dared to tell the stories in public erased the Trud from the collective memory of the following generations. Today, few in Bavaria have heard of the Trud, and nightmares are attributed to other causes.

Rumor Tears Down the Wall

On one mild November night in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Shortly before midnight on November 9, thousands of East Germans pushed their way through the first checkpoint, and by 1:00 a.m. all borders were wide open. On that memorable night, Berliners danced on the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate and cheered on an endless stream of East Berliners going West. People got together with flowers in their hands and tears in their eyes. No politician had predicted the fall of the Wall, even one day beforehand. “Who got us into this mess?” asked the perplexed East German prime minister in dismay. “That’s impossible. It’s incredible!” rejoiced the West German chancellor.15 Everyone, including the CIA and President George H. W. Bush, was taken by total surprise.


Figure 11-1: No one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall. © ullstein bild-fishan.

The Wall had divided Berlin for almost thirty years. Rising up to fifteen feet high, it extended for twenty-eight miles through the city, made of concrete, topped with barbed wire, and guarded by watchtowers, mines, and a special police force. More than one hundred East Germans had been killed trying to cross it and escape into the West, and thousands were captured in the attempt. In early 1989, the East German prime minister had announced that the Wall would still stand in fifty or even a hundred years.16 There seemed little hope that East Germans would be allowed to travel freely. Yet their government came under strong pressure after a reformist Hungarian government opened its borders to the West, allowing East Germans to escape via Hungary. When Czechoslovakia also opened its borders, thousands used this shorter route in a mass exodus for West Germany. Every Monday, large crowds of East Germans demonstrated for the basic rights of citizens in a democracy: free travel, free press, and free elections. The scene was set for political change, but no one knew how to make it happen.

On November 9, the East German government reacted by announcing new guidelines for traveling outside of the country, which offered only slight relief over the old handcuffs. Citizens still had to apply first for a passport (most had none), and then for a visa. These applications used to take months of endless bureaucratic paperwork, after which the visa could still be denied. The new guidelines promised only that this process would be sped up. At 6:00 p.m., Günter Schabowski, the new secretary of the East German Central Committee for Media Politics, held an hour-long press conference, only mentioning the new guidelines at the very end. Having missed the government meeting where these had been discussed, the tired-looking and overworked Schabowski hemmed and hawed his way through an obviously unfamiliar text. Informed and attentive listeners recognized that there was not much new—East German politics as usual. An Italian journalist asked when the new regulations would be effective. Schabowski, who did not seem to know, hesitated, looked at his sheet of paper, and then said “right now, immediately.” At 7:00 p.m., he ended the conference.

Whereas most reporters saw little reason for excitement, the Italian journalist rushed out and, shortly afterward, his agency spread the news that “the Wall fell.” This report had no backing from what Schabowski had said. Simultaneously, an American reporter who did not understand German interpreted the translation of the conference as meaning that the Wall was now open, and NBC broadcasted that from tomorrow morning on, East Germans could traverse the Berlin Wall without any restrictions. At 8:00 p.m., the West German TV news, under time pressure, summarized the press conference in their own words, and Schabowski was shown saying “right now, immediately.” At the end of the report, the headline “East Germany Opens Border” was added. Other news agencies entered this contest in wishful thinking and mistakenly reported that the border was already open. A waiter from a nearby café in West Berlin went with his guests and a tablet of champagne glasses to the perplexed border guards to make a toast to the opening of the Wall. The guards, who thought this was a bad joke, refused and sent the troublemakers back. Yet the rumor spread to the West German parliament in Bonn, which happened to be meeting at that time. Deeply moved, some with tears in their eyes, the representatives stood up and began to sing the German national anthem. The East Germans who were watching West German television were more than willing to engage in the wishful thinking seeded by the news. A dream infinitely far away seemed to have come true. Thousands and soon tens of thousands of East Berliners jumped into their cars or walked to the border crossings to the West. Yet the guards had, of course, no orders to open the border. Angry citizens demanded what they believed was their new right of way, and the guards at first refused. Yet in the face of an avalanche of citizens physically pushing at them, an officer at one crossing eventually opened the barriers, fearing that his men would otherwise be trampled to death. Soon all the crossings were open. No shot was fired, no blood spilled.

How could this miracle happen? Years of diplomatic negotiations and financial payments from the West had failed. The immediate cause for the fall of the Berlin Wall turned out to be a combination of wishful thinking and a subsequent unsubstantiated rumor that spread like wildfire. The government was as surprised as its citizens, whereas a well-planned uprising could easily have been suppressed by tanks and soldiers, as had happened in 1953. Wishful thinking could spread because the new guidelines had been put together in a hurry, without the standard press release to ensure that journalists reported what they were supposed to. Yet if the media and the citizens of Berlin had carefully listened to what Schabowski had said and looked at the facts, nothing would have happened on this remarkable night, and the next day would have been just another day in a divided Berlin. After the Wall fell, however, both the prime minister and Schabowski quickly did an about-face and took credit for the opening of the border.

Rumor and wishful thinking are virtually always seen as negative, to be avoided and replaced by deliberate, informed reasoning. Like deliberation and negotiation, however, they can be positive in a powerful way. A high-level West German government official reportedly concluded after the press conference that East German politics had once again failed to change, and went to bed. He slept through this historical night because he knew too much.

In Western thought, intuition began as the most certain form of knowledge and has ended up being scorned as a fickle and unreliable guide to life. Angels and spiritual beings were once thought to intuit with impeccable clarity—superior to merely human ratiocination—and philosophers argued that intuition made us “see” the self-evident truths in mathematics and morals. Yet today, intuition is increasingly linked to our bowels rather than our brains, and has descended from angelic certainty to mere sentiment. But gut feelings are in fact neither impeccable nor stupid. As I have argued, they take advantage of the evolved capacities of the brain and are based on rules of thumb that enable us to act fast and with astounding accuracy. The quality of intuition lies in the intelligence of the unconscious: the ability to know without thinking which rule to rely on in which situation. We have seen that gut feelings can outwit the most sophisticated reasoning and computational strategies, and we have seen how they can be exploited and lead us astray. Yet there is no way around intuition; we could achieve little without it.

In this book, I invited you into the largely unknown land of intuitive feelings, shrouded in a mist of uncertainty. For me, it has been a fascinating journey, full of surprises about the power of gut feelings and the wonders that emerge when the haze lifts. I hope that you too have enjoyed these glimpses into the intelligence of the unconscious and learned that there are many good reasons to trust your gut.