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Acting on intuition

November 4, 2009

I found this fascinating article about bomb-detecting devices used in Iraq that in practice appear purely psychological. A hand-held Ouija-board-like rod swaying to the left or right to signify the presence of guns/explosives/illegal ivory, without a power source and a claimed range of 3 miles, how can it be so effective? I want to investigate this closer, and share some thoughts with you.

Here is the article itself from NY Times:

One idea is that these devices work because people believe they work. I like the social construction element of this story – it’s like faith in superstitions, or religion, or social norms. When I was 13, I set up an ouija board with a friend, and we summoned some minor spirit or other. We believed in what we were doing. Similarly, people who believe in (and are afraid of) ghosts won’t willingly go into a haunted mansion. Here’s an example closer to home – if you believe you will get caught for speeding, you are more likely to stay under the speed limit. Likewise, if you think the bomb detection wands are effective, you won’t risk going through a checkpoint with explosives. By building a social reality that an effective detection system exists, the security forces are able to deter some criminals. By raising the risk of detection above zero, they are bound to deter some subset of potential offenders. This won’t work to prevent suicide bombers or other cases where the risk level is irrelevant, but other people who don’t want to be stopped by the police are less likely to carry firearms if they know they will be going through a checkpoint.

Another idea I have is that these devices bring out into the open the subconscious intuitions, prejudices and biases of the people who are using them. In one of his books Malcolm Gladwell writes about people’s ability to detect patterns before they can consciously codify them – I think he talks about people being able to play a card game before they can fully name and explain the rules. Perhaps by looking through hundreds of cars during the day, something subtle could trip the awareness of the guard into realizing that one of the cars has firearms in it. Maybe it’s a nervous look in the eye of the driver, or a way the car breaks before the checkpoint, or hundreds of other possible signals. The device legitimizes the practice of acting on intuition, and bubbles up powerful subconscious signals to reality to decisively empower the person using the detector to stop the situation and explore further. Not “because I think it’s a good idea”, but rather “because the stick told me so” – even though the reasons are mostly the same. The devices provide social validation and authority for people to rely on their intuition. In time, this can go wrong as racial, gender and political stereotypes embedded in people’s subconsciousness start obtaining legitimacy through the use of objects. Imagine a situation where “you are a witch/communist/terrorist because an object I control says so”. It’s not a pretty possibility. Still, there is an upside of when it works out well.

Why are these explosion detection devices worth this much time to discuss? To me, firstly this is a fascinating social construction and realism subject. Secondly, and this is the marketer in me, these devices are sold for $60k each, to a tune of millions of dollars. There’s clearly a possibility of making profit in the space of “these types of devices”. While I don’t feel comfortable selling useless explosive detection devices, there are certainly markets where the “social legitimacy devices” can be sold at a profit. Think about it – a professional looking lie detector application for the iphone (which has a 50/50 random number generator inside) will become more effective than random chance in hands of someone who a) believes in it and b) uses it to legitimize their own intuitions.

Any thoughts? Anyone want to help me write this iphone app or collaborate on other kinds of magic wand devices? There are many more possibilities out there and I am intrigued and fascinated by the kind of social experiments that create their own reality.


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