In previous posts I’ve discussed how creating the right environmentseeking better feedback and creating ‘circuit breakers’ could help us the develop the kind of expertise required to hone our intuition. This post discusses the role of emotions and how we could change the way we respond to our feelings.

Our emotions provide us with important and useful data, but much of this information is misleading and requires conscious processing. We tend to be all too willing to go with our guts, trust hunches and do what ‘feels right’ without much understanding of where our emotions comes from or what they might be really telling us. Whilst our emotions can feel more like noise than signal, they’re very effective at telling us what we like. If what we like is at odds with, say, research findings then we should acknowledge these feelings and try to prevent them from dominating our decision making.

The more we know about emotional biases, the better equipped we will be when we have a strong urge to act in a particular way. Most readers will be familiar with confirmation bias – the tendency to look for evidence that confirms – and ignore anything which contradicts – our beliefs. Equally real is the backfire effect – the finding that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that something we believe is wrong that evidences sometimes backfires and ends up further entrenching our beliefs. Think about end of the world cults: it’s hard to imagine any evidence that you’re mistaken stronger than the fact the world hasn’t ended, and yet…

Generally, when we do what we’ve always done we’re happy. Robert Zajonc’s 1968 investigations into what’s become known as the mere exposure’ effect suggests that our emotional responses to an idea becomes more positive as it becomes more familiar to us; the more times we’ve encountered something – a tune, a person, a teaching technique – the more inclined we are to feel good about it.

It may be that much of what we do in the classroom and beyond is just what is most familiar. Maybe if we carefully reviewed the research to find out if we could be doing anything better we could overcome our negative feelings through ‘mere exposure’ to new ideas?

Having to think too much is hard work and feels unpleasant. So unpleasant in fact that we’d rather do something we disliked than invest the effort to think about what might be better! We tend to feel happier when we can rely on our fast, automatic systems and not have to utilise too much draining analytical resources. We’re over inclined to say something like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” without first considering whether or not it is – whatever it is – actually broken, and we ignore opportunity costs because they’re hard to think about. Think about how hard it is to get teachers to mark less. Despite the lack of evidence that extensive marking improves students’ outcomes and in face of the overwhelming time demands of some marking policies, the belief that marking must be good is remarkably persistent.

Negative feelings provide valuable emotional feedback, and, contrary to our intuitions, positive feelings are often just noise. Before we either dismiss our feelings, or act on them and ditch a new way of working, it’s worth asking ourselves what’s triggering these feelings. Is it just because the ideas are unfamiliar? The more we’re improving, the less good we will feel. The kind of purposeful practice which leads to improvement requires effort and concentration. If our teaching feels too comfortable it could a signal that we’re dipping back into autopilot and a reminder that we need to think more about our circuit breakers.

The next post in this series will explore how we can develop expert intuition by examining the links between seemingly disparate areas and forcing apparently incompatible ideas together to forge new connections.