Overthinking | English Columnist Hyeonji Shim
Is she into you? She messages “heyyy” every night with three ys and laughs at your obscure jokes, but you really can’t tell. Your friends say she just has a bad sense of humor and is the type to hit up everyone else. You might go on to compile quantitative data on how many other guys she talks to and tags memes in. What’s lost in the data, though, is that she blushes and fidgets in your presence; data says you’re merely one of her 7 close guy friends, but 21+ years of experience in human interaction say you’re special.
The opening was in reference to “Casually Explained: Is she Into You?”, poking fun at how girls are the ultimate mixed signal generators in romance, leaving guys confused. Rejections are common, but missed opportunities are just as, if not more, common. Positive signs will first tickle your intuition, then you deem it illogical for anyone to be interested in you; however, “logic” becomes farthest from the truth when obsession with small details shrouds the obvious big picture. While “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a neat cliché, the big picture is sometimes most telling and subsequent data is awfully misleading. One can argue that the more you know, the more you overthink – it becomes “I think she likes me” vs “I think she likes me, but she just love-reacted another dude’s profile picture”. Society says data is power and data is money, but it is often forgotten that our intuition is a tool just as potent. Gut feelings are an undervalued evolutionary tool capable of revealing all kinds of truths that sea of data cannot.
What we commonly call “gut feelings” is referred to as the adaptive unconscious, a data analyzer buried deep in our brain. The never-ending judgments within our unconscious can quickly detect danger and instantly launch a flight or fight response, so that we don’t waste time consciously assessing the situation and then die. Your indecision mentally kills you when you’re unsure of what to order in front of a cashier, but it will kill you physically when you encounter a mountain lion. The unconscious mind has been populated by Sigmund Freud many centuries ago, but his version is about everyone’s darkest fantasies being locked away – the adaptive unconscious is not about why you’re attracted to someone like your mom, but a set of mental processes that unconsciously pay attention to your surroundings.
If you grew up in California, perhaps you’ve paid one or two visits to J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to see Van Gogh’s Irises. The well-known museum is also home to the famous “kouros case”, an interesting occurrence that gives weight to intuition. In 1983, the Getty was offered to buy a kouro (male statue) supposedly from ancient Greece. Like any sane businessman about to spend, or waste, millions of dollars on an art piece, the Getty recruited renowned experts to thoroughly inspect the statue – the experts confirmed the kouro’s authenticity a year later. Meanwhile, an Italian art historian took a spontaneous glance and said “I feel like there is something wrong with it”. Who will win: an expert who says it’s real, with a high-resolution stereomicroscope, electron microscope and x-ray diffraction, or one feely guy? Disregarding numerous artists’ claims that the statue had some inexplicable freshness to it, the Getty relied on numbers and purchased the Kouros. Turns out, the ancient kouros worth millions had been recently made in a forger’s workshop in Rome (detailed coverage of the case: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-07-14/entertainment/ca-285_1_j-paul-getty-museum/2)
Microscopes can provide straightforward measurements, but reality is nothing but nuanced. The most miniscule detail of a fingernail of the kouros can unconsciously disturb an artist who has years of experience with thousands of art pieces. It is easy to brush off gut feelings, or the “stomach drop” sensation, due to lack of decisive evidence, but be reminded that humans are engineered to have limitless, legitimate data buried in our brains. It saves us the hassle of consciously pulling up knowledge every time we make a decision. In an attempt to be rational, we may gather external data and set aside our intuition; however, objective external data often times clashes with our internal decision maker, resulting in a counterproductive wave of uncertainties/errors. Think of the time you suddenly became aware that you’re breathing. Your breathing becomes annoyingly manual and loses its steady rhythm, no longer a smoothly automated process. Greater the activated areas in your brain, greater the chance of error and interference (http://www.timelapseexplorers.com/blog/2016/10/25/paul-zehr-phd-black-belt-brain-stop-thinking-so-much).
Decision-making is a lot harder when there are > 30 types of cheeses in the supermarket and any knowledge is a search engine away. I go through hundreds of yelp reviews when picking a restaurant, startled by Susan’s rage at the manager and confused about Ken’s money-driven praise, but I end up choosing one that looks good to me. Because there is so much we can know, we don't know what we need to know, hence the overthinking epidemic. Intuition isn’t just pseudo intelligence that’s fun to read about -- it is a fantastic personalized guide for quickly picking the decision that yields the highest expected return. The brain has stored your lifetime’s worth of emotions and patterns from the environment to make snap judgments best for you. Blindly taking in all data in hopes of creating a rational baseline for decisions can be an overthinking slippery slope, wasting time with the option that has lowest expected return, i.e. arguing with your boyfriend because he took a 10-hour “nap” and that was somehow related to his unwillingness to talk to you. Obsession with small details causes deviations from the big picture, which our intuition has unconsciously analyzed and already signaled your brain about. Brains are an evolutionary masterpiece that deserve more credit, and the seemingly baseless gut feelings actually have psychological validity -- it is our invisible intelligence.
So is she into you? Again, you probably can’t tell…
Article inspired by Blink, written by Malcolm Gladwell.