Intuition and Science – Can they agree?


By Rowena Kong

In the realm of science, we ask questions to seek answers and in order to obtain answers, we go through the structured, systematic and sometimes considerably lengthy process of research planning, design, experiment implementation, data collection, analysis of results and further thought-generating discussions to arrive at a supported conclusion of our starting hypothesis. Tedious and time-consuming as it is, such is the hallmark of scientific research that provides a solid and unshakable foundation for a discipline that has been birthed, flourished and sped in amazing advances through the ages. We could not deny the reputation and respect science has gained from scholars and non-scholars alike. And as a scientific discipline, psychology shares an increasingly fair amount of this fame and acceptance since its humble and roller-coaster beginnings. However, as with any scientific discipline, with the endless flood of questions that need to be answered and the unlimited range of possible answers that can be contributed and discovered, we wonder how every single one could be fully accommodated by the competitive field of research which may not be unreservedly generous with funding all the time.

Competition is undeniable and inevitable so even one cannot escape from expending some effort in brainstorming a creative and interesting research idea. But does it always have to be overwhelmingly demanding on our conscious cognitive processes in order to produce a decent theme worth researching about? We read, explore, and dig into the broad supply of library materials and guides, yet at the end of an exhausting day, it is hard to predict our success rates of generating an awesome idea. When I read through the first two chapters of the ever popular textbook by Cozby and Rawn (2012) as any (or most) PSYC 217 student(s) would, I liked the balanced arguments against using our basic intuition to achieve knowledge and the practical suggestion of thinking skeptically of common intuitive assumptions as a starting point to activate our research creativity.

There is no clear-cut formula to successfully coming up with a brilliant hypothesis, but in the context of opposing intuition and scientific skepticism, perhaps we can reach a subjective compromise at a stage where the boundaries between them are somewhat indistinct and implicit. So as a psychology undergraduate, I have been struggling to balance the alluring weight of intuition, which is often discouraged out of academic adherence and respect, with the other, just as heavy, principle of empiricism on the opposite end of the scale.

From a previous article that talks about the effect of Tylenol consumption on social pain relief, I was reminded of how my personal intuitive vigilance could one day find its rest on the knowledge of certain impressive psychological research discoveries. As a recap, the study by DeWall et al. (2010) came up with behavioural and neural evidence for social pain reduction by acetaminophen. Earlier, Eisenberger and Lieberman (2004) wrote on the processing of both physical and social pain by similar brain regions and the adaptive functions of pain in the social-attachment system of mammals that serve to maintain our chances of survival through protection against social separation from the group. In the history of literature, there has never been a more popular descriptive term for the experience of social rejection and separation than the word ‘pain’ and ‘heartache’.

As for the brain regions of interest, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula were found to be associated with the effective component of physical pain as well as social pain, which arises from detection of conflict and discrepancy. Building on the hypothesis that physical and social pain share the same mechanisms, DeWall et al. conducted experiments which showed that that participants who took acetaminophen indicated significantly lower hurt feeling scores than those in the placebo condition. A recent study conducted by Durso, Luttrell, and Way (2015) looked at the effect of acetaminophen not only on negative pain but also on our evaluation sensitivity to positive stimuli. The results confirmed the researchers’ prediction that participants who took acetaminophen would rate moderate and extreme picture stimuli significantly less negatively and positively (in other words, less extremely) than those in the placebo condition. In terms of emotional arousal ratings, those who had taken acetaminophen were also significantly less emotionally aroused. In fact, the difference in responses of mean ratings of emotional arousal between the acetaminophen and placebo groups of participants increased with the extremity of positive and negative valences of the picture stimuli shown.

From the above highlighted research outcome that lends support to a long-time held cautionary belief that there is more to acetaminophen than physical pain relief, I am now challenged to revise my position as a boastful science skeptic and to reconsider the under-appreciated lay person’s valuable insight that could be gleaned from intuition. Such short-cut conclusions, which often bypass step-wise route of logical reasoning and intellectual discussion, can be easily related to an unconscious mode of thinking, which is non-deliberate but more capable at getting the best out of complex decision-making problems (Dijksterhuis, 2004). However, this is not to say that we can easily discount the necessity of empirical science upon which the discipline of psychology is firmly grounded.

In fact, only sound research can preserve its integrity and continuity, as students would also agree. However, as with how history has begun, before our quest for knowledge became a routine part of ancient civilization building and the present high-tech age, perhaps our intuition as an inseparable part of our cognition can be a curiosity-igniting, though anonymous backstage performance guide and planner. Scientific skepticism might never recognize or reward its credibility, yet its irreplaceable seat in our complex cognitive capacity is still intuitively more than redundant and may function as a part of our adaptivity to particularly unpredictable environmental demands, such as an unwarned pop quiz before the start of a safe lecture class. As demonstrated in the above example of Tylenol’s potential effect on social pain, it may not be always wise or useful to refute intuitive presumptions which could pave the way for promising future research and open up new frontiers for psychological science.


Cozby, P. C., & Rawn, C. D. (2012). Methods in behavioural research. Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C.,…Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). Think different: The merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 586-598. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.5.586

Durso, G. R. O., Luttrell, A., & Way, B. M. (2015). Over-the-counter relief from pains and pleasures alike: Acetaminophen blunts evaluation sensitivity to both negative and positive stimuli. Psychological Science, 26, 750-758. doi: 10.1177/0956797615570366

Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 294-300. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010

Photo Credit: Andy Lattal. “Brain and Heart.” [Online image] February 2013. <>.

About the author:

Rowena Kong is a fourth year Psychology major who is interested in writing about a diverse range of topics. The brain’s mirror neurons and dopaminergic reward system fascinate her just as much as cultural universals and implicit social communication. During her spare time, she enjoys photography, fanfiction, and working with Photoshop to improve her amateurish skills. 

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