Consider the following example: you're walking thorugh the savannah with some of your family in search of a little breakfast. You come across a type of animal you've never seen before. It has dark brown fur with a white stripe down its spine. As you approach, it lunges at your merry band, sinking its teeth into your eldest daughter's neck and killing her. Now let's say we asked you what the probability is that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe you see would be dangerous. You'd probably say 100 percent, and that's the most rational guess you could make since the single dark-furred, white-striped animal you've encountered proved to be dangerous.
Now let's say you accidentally happen upon another one of the these creatures. This time the animal sits there peacefully, even assuming the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. Again we ask you, what is the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. You'd probably pause. Rationally, your answer should be 50 percent, since as of this moment, one of two has proved dangerous. But your gut says something different. It's true that it is no longer reasonable to expect that all individuals of this species are dangerous, but on an intuitive level you know it's better to be safe than sorry. In your heightened emotional state, the cost of taking a longer path to avoid the brown and white critter is far less than the risk of losing another life. And in this case, your intuitive mind is right. While avoiding all animals with dark fur and white stripes would be an irrational calculation rooted in emotion (namely, fear), it is also an adaptive one.
Of course, this isn't just true in the jungle. In modern life too, listening to intuition and being more sensitive to the possibility of harm will serve you better on average than evaluating each individual situation rationally and objectively, particularly in situations that require rapid decisions for which you have incomplete information. [Out of Character, 188-189]
It's important to note that Desteno and Valdesolo are not simply stating in a preference. There is a large body of research supporting this view. Ironically, Ayn Rand might have been able to appreciate this truth, had she been paying more attention to the implications of one of her most important epistemological doctrines, unit-economy. In her short treatise on epistemology, Rand explains unit economy as follows:
Since consciousness is a specific faculty, it has a specific nature or identity and, therefore, its range is limited: it cannot perceive everything at once; since awareness, on all its levels, requires an active process, it cannot do everything at once. Whether the units with which one deals are percepts or concepts, the range of what man can hold in the focus of his conscious awareness at any given moment, is limited. The essence, therefore, of man’s incomparable cognitive power is the ability to reduce a vast amount of information to a minimal number of units—which is the task performed by his conceptual faculty. And the principle of unit-economy is one of that faculty’s essential guiding principles.
The very fact that human beings can only hold a small amount of information in consciuosness at a given moment makes reasoning about complex matters very difficult, if not impossible. Since the brain can only hold a few pieces of data within consciousness at a given time, complexity leads to cognitive over-load. Intuition is the cognitive faculty that enables individuals to make quick decisions concerning complex matters. Because these quick decisions aren't as accurate as slow, deliberate, peer-reviewed reasoning, it tends to err on the side of safety, as noted in the above example. Human beings are prewired to be extra cautious about potential sources of harm. That is why the infant child, having once burned his hand touching a flame, doesn't repeat the experiment a second time. He does not (as Objectivism implies) make some difficult calcuation involving the law of identity and its corollary, causality; he knows nothing nor is capable of understanding such abstruse constructs. Moreover, as any scientist would tell you, one experiment can hardly be consider decisive. The child avoids the flame because he instinctively (i.e., emotionally) understands: it's better to be safe than sorry.
According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
Brains evaluate everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to the self, and the adjust behavior to get more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Animal brains make such appraisals thousands of times a day with no need for conscious reasoning, all in order to optimize the brain's answer to the fundamental problems of animal life: approach or avoid?...
In a landmark review article, [social psychologist Robert] Zajone urged psychologists to use a dual-process model in which affect or "feeling" is the first process. It has primacy both because it happens first (it is part of perception and is therefore extremely fast) and because it is more powerful (it is closely linked to motivation, and therefore it strongly influences behavior). The second process — thinking — is an evolutionarily newer ability, rooted in language and not closely related to motivation.... The thinking system is not equipped to lead — it simply doesn't have the power to make things happen — but it can be a useful advisor. [The Righteous Mind, 55-56]
Rand also believes in what could be described as a dual-process model involving conscious reasoning on the one hand and the subconscious on the other; but Rand reverses the primacy, making conscious reasoning the first process and subconscious evaluations the second process (hence Peikoff's assertion, spoken in Rand's presence: "There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means."). In the Randian model, the subconscious is "programmed" by the conscious mind. For Rand, the appraisals we all make thousands of time a day are "lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values." Where do these values come from? Ideas.
Your subconscious is like a computer—more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted.... If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character. You have probably heard the computer operators’ eloquent term “gigo”—which means: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The same formula applies to the relationship between a man’s thinking and his emotions.
The Randian model assumes that the subconsious is a blank slate: all its content derives from the conscious mind. If an individual focuses his mind and programs his subconscious with "rational" convictions, his emotions will tend to be rational. If, however, the individual fails to focus him mind and merely integrates whatever ideas he happens, by accident, to have been exposed to, his emotions will tend to be irrational and, if used as a guide to action, dangerous. Such an individual does not know whether his subconscious "is true or false, right or wrong, whether it’s set to lead him to success or destruction, whether it serves his goals or those of some evil, unknowable power. He is blind on two fronts: blind to the world around him and to his own inner world, unable to grasp reality or his own motives, and he is in chronic terror of both."
There are a number of very serious problems with Rand's view. To begin with, it is entirely inconsistent with evolution. As even Rand would probably have admitted, her model is not consistent with animal (i.e., non-human) cognition. Animals don't program their subconscious minds. Their brains make thousands of instant appraisals everyday. These appraisals are not based on conscious convictions integrated into their subconscious minds. Now according to evolution, humans evolved from animals. The human brain, therefore, evolved from the brains of lower animals. Hence, we would expect that a human brain would constitute a further development of the animal brain, rather than a complete re-write. In other words, the human power of conscious reasoning would be built upon, rather than replace, the animal brain. Otherwise, the human brain would in effect have to be redesigned by evolution from the ground up. But this is not how evolution works. If Rand were right about how the subconscious works, to maintain logical consistency, she would have to believe that the human brain was designed by some agent (e.g., God, space aliens, the flying spaghetti monster, etc.). Since she denies the existence of any such entitites, her view of the subconscious is logically insupportable.
The second problem with Rand's view is that it does not accord with the evidence. The brain simply does not work the way Rand claims it does, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of experiments corroborating this fact. As Jonathan Haidt explains:
Psychologists used to assume that infant minds were blank slates.... But when development psychologists invented ways to look into infant minds, they found a great deal of writing already on that slate.
The trick was to see what surprises babies. Infants as young as two months old will look longer at an event that surprises them than an event they were expecting.... if the infant's mind comes already wired to interpret events in certain ways, than infants can be surprised with the world violates their expectations.
Using this trick, psychologists discovered that infants are born with some knowledge of physics and mechanics: they expect that objects will move according to Newton's laws of motion, and they get startled when psychologists show them scenes that should be physically impossible (such as a toy car seeming to pass through a solid object). [The Righteous Mind, 63]
Many more experiments could be made to corroborate this refutation of Rand's view. Emotions are not the results of programming by the conscious mind. They are, on the contrary, products of the cognitive unconscious, which is man's evolutionary inheritance from his mammalian ancestors. They are adapative, which means: they developed to meet specific needs of animals — namely, the necessity, in some situations, to make very quick judgments. They supplement, rather than contradict or oppose, man's rational faculty. Indeed, as we shall soon discover, man's rational faculty depends upon his emotions, and cannot function properly without them.