The FBI spent 18 years trying to find Jaycee Dugard, a girl abducted in 1991, when she was 11, while walking to her bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. But when the case broke last week, it wasn't a sweeping raid or a well-placed tip that eventually led the FBI to Dugard and the arrest of her alleged captor, Philip Garrido. It was intuition.
"My police intuition was kicking in, but I would say it's more of a mother's intuition," Allison Jacobs, a police officer with the University of California, Berkeley, recently told Anderson Cooper of her meeting with Garrido and his two daughters, 11 and 15. A campus safety officer, Lisa Campbell, had asked Jacobs to sit in on a meeting with Garrido after Campbell had met with Garrido the previous day, and had thought something about the 58-year-old man and his two daughters was off. Jacobs, after meeting with Garrido and the children, grew suspicious too. So she made a call to Garrido's parole officer, setting off a chain of events that would eventually culminate in Dugard's discovery and Garrido's arrest.
"I knew something wasn't right. I could kind of see it in their eyes," Jacobs told Cooper of that first meeting, "although I really didn't know what it was."
How could Campbell's and Jacobs's gut feelings lead to a break in the case and Dugard's reappearance, when nearly two decades of FBI investigation hadn't been able to? Intuitions are difficult to understand but, as this case shows, they can be a powerful force. We trust intuition to the point that the U.S. Army recently began training soldiers in Iraq to rely on their hunches. New studies have even found potential neural correlates, places where intuition may reside in the brain. But at the same time, intuition remains a largely enigmatic process. Hunches happen outside the reach of cognition, automatically and subconsciously, making the phenomenon a difficult one to understand. So researchers still grapple with some of the most basic questions: how often do we rely on intuition? How often do we describe as intuition what might instead have been luck or look more predictive in hindsight? Perhaps most importantly, how accurate is our intuition? "We don't know enough yet to know how many people profess to be intuitive and how many are guessing," says Gerard Hodgkinson, a professor at Leeds University in England who recently published a review of intuition research in the British Journal of Psychology. "That's where the science continues."
We do know that intuition is not ESP or a sixth sense; it's inherently grounded in our knowledge of the world. "Intuition is really the fruit of experience," says Robin Hogarth, author of Educating Intuition. "In a lot of ways, it's a form of pattern recognition, done in a way that it becomes unconscious." Over the course of our lifetimes, we develop a sense of what is normal—what our house ought to look like when we come home from work, for example, or what to anticipate from an interaction with a colleague or a typical visit to the dentist. Our intuition kicks in when something in the well-worn pattern is different, even if we can't pinpoint what exactly it is. "Knowing with absolute certainty without knowing why" is how Hodgkinson describes it. "It happens so rapidly that you're not even able to consciously articulate why [a new] course of action is necessary." Neurologically, research from the past five years has shown intuitive decision to be correlated with increased blood flow to the amygdala, an area of the brain known to regulate emotions.
Our intuitions can be disarmingly accurate. A much-cited Harvard study from the 1990s found that students who were asked to watch a teacher they had never seen before for six seconds and rate the teacher's confidence assessed the teachers much as students who spent an entire semester in the course did. With a quick look at a chessboard, chess masters (who may have thousands of patterns in memory) can play "blitz chess"—making moves after mere seconds of deliberation—with little negative effect on their performance. And Jacobs, having developed a sense of "normal" behavior from her years on the police force, was right to describe her sense as a "police intuition." "I think if she wasn't a police officer, she might have noticed it, but it wouldn't have made her nervous in the same way," says Gary Klein, author of the forthcoming Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. "From her previous work, she had developed an additional sense that something was at risk here."
In fact, it may have been Jacobs's police intuition and Campbell's similar instinct that set them apart from the many neighbors who had a "civilian intuition" about Garrido, spurring them to act while the others kept suspicions to themselves. A few neighbors admitted to thinking Garrido was odd and had even seen the girls in the shed behind his home. But aside from one phone call to the authorities in 2006—which the local sheriff's office recently admitted to failing to follow through on—no one took much action. Unlike Jacobs, Garrido's neighbors didn't have a police officer's history of tracking down criminals, to know what might indicate a potentially criminal situation—the neighbors didn't have that kind of a pattern to begin with. They knew "weird" but weren't as clear with "possibly criminal."
Moreover, their intuition had another strong, psychological phenomenon to contend with: the bystander apathy effect. Even when we recognize a disturbing situation, we don't necessarily see it as our responsibility to act, especially if we think others are also aware of the problem. One classic study, from 1968, simulated a situation in which individuals heard cries for help. When people thought they were the only ones within hearing range, nearly 90 percent of bystanders took action. But when they thought four other people also heard the calls, the number dropped to less than a third. To psychologists, stories and studies like this show that we often do not assume responsibility in situations where, from the outside, it seems we clearly should. Police officers, obviously, have a mandate to protect people, so they are less likely to fall prey to this effect.
And then there's perhaps the biggest question of all: are intuitions, like the one Jacobs had, usually accurate? At the end of the day, are we better off trusting our hearts over our heads? Researchers say the answer is still one of the biggest unknowns in the science of intuition. We do know our intuitions are not completely accurate; prejudices, for example, can lead us astray. We make particularly lousy decisions when we attempt to use intuition without experience to back it up (think gambling or novice stock traders). And we sometimes use intuition as a post hoc explanation for inexplicable behavior, like a lottery winner who claims to have just known the right numbers. "People tend to overestimate their skill at intuition," author Hogarth says. "They say 'I had a great intuition,' but don't say they might just be lucky."
Hogarth suspects that intuition could never be the entire story of human decision-making. The best decisions are likely made using intuition and more analytical, conscious information processing in tandem. Take the case of Jacobs: she didn't flat-out arrest Garrido on a hunch. Rather, the intuition catalyzed an analytical, conscious investigation that would lead to his eventual arrest. "It's not intuition versus other methods," says Hogarth. "As a smart decision maker, you are using both and balancing the two." It seems likely that even the strongest of intuitions—Jacobs's included—need to call for backup.