Ordinary intuition leads most people to choose the flashing red button to avert certain doom. We have been conditioned to view red objects as important items that demand attention, so red buttons are typically assigned important functions. In this case, listening to your intuition could save your life!
Recognizing when intuition trumps logic.
Without knowing why, a race car driver suddenly felt the powerful urge to brake sharply when nearing a bend. But it was fortunate that he did, because he managed to avoid hitting a pileup of cars just ahead of him, perhaps saving his life. Afterward, he was unable to explain why he had done it, until psychologists showed him a video of the incident. The driver then noticed that the crowd, which normally might have been animatedly cheering him on, was frozen in an odd way.
"That was the cue," Leeds University intuition researcher Gerald Hodgkinson explained in a 2008 interview. "He didn't consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time."
You may never have driven a race car, but you’ve probably had the same experience on another level, whether it’s deciding which stock to buy or whether to accept a marriage proposal.
You have to make a choice, and logic tells you that you should go with A. But at the same time, something within you tells you not to do that, and to go with B instead. That impulse is called intuition, though we sometimes also call it a gut instinct, with the implication being that it originates somewhere around our beltlines rather than above our shoulders. Some consider it the best way to make a decision, while others deride intuition as an imaginary explanation for letting our emotions overrule our intellects. In truth, though, scientists have discovered that intuition actually is a real process that takes place in multiple parts of our brains, and developed in evolution as a shortcut for solving problems quickly. There are several types of intuition, but all of them can come in handy in modern life. On the downside, there are times when intuition gets things wrong, too, so it’s important to be aware of the process and its limitations before trusting it unreservedly.
It Happens in the Brain, Not Your Gut
The idea of intuition has been around for a long time. The classical Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, not only believed that men possessed it, but that it combined with scientific investigation to form wisdom. In the late 1800s, William James, regarded by many as the father of American psychology, proposed what eventually became known as the dual-process model of cognition—the idea that we have a slow, deliberate systematic reasoning mode and also a second, automatic system that relies upon shortcuts to make decisions at high speed.
Modern neuroscience has borne out James’ theory. We get our intuitive ability from a system in your brains called the adaptive unconscious, which actually is spread through several structures—including the ventral pallidum and the amygdala, which also serves as the brain’s fear center.
This decision-making works at a much higher speed than your conscious mind. Researchers have watched brain scans of experimental subjects making choices, and they’ve have found that a person will make an intuitive decision about seven seconds before he or she even is aware of the choice. A study published in Science in 2008, in which researchers questioned Italian subjects about the automatic mental associations that popped into their heads when they were considering a controversial subject—in this case, enlargement of a local U.S. military base—concluded that they often subconsciously had their minds made up, even while they consciously insisted that they were still undecided.
Compared to deliberate decision making, "intuitive thinking is perception-like, rapid, effortless," the Nobel Prize-winning Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman once noted.
The adaptive unconscious makes your decision making more efficient through an ingenious trick. Think of it as something like auto-correct on your phone, making educated guesses based on previous information that you’ve stored in your memory. It takes incoming data and compares it to what you already know, and looks for similarities. It searches your memories and makes comparisons to hardwired danger signals in your amygdala.
Over time, as you amass more and more information, your brain unconsciously organizes it into patterns, a process that the psychologist and artificial-intelligence pioneer Herbert Simon called chunking. When you see something new whose details fits into those patterns, you instantaneously make the association. That flash is what we call intuition.
Your brain probably was wired for intuition by the evolutionary process, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher. In a 2013 article, she theorized that the high-speed decision system developed so our ancestors could size up a potentially dangerous person or situation quickly. It’s a skill that she believes is still useful today. She explains, "your intuition may not always steer you right, but it can be a useful first step in decision-making."
It may also be that intuition was a useful trait because it enabled humans to get along with one another. In a study published in Nature in 2012, Harvard University researchers found that subjects who made quick intuitive decisions in a game-playing exercise were more likely to cooperate with others than those who had more time to think.
Three Types of Intuition, and How We Use Them
There actually are three types of intuition. The first is ordinary intuition—the classic gut feeling that we get, which makes us feel as if we know the choice to make, even if that feeling doesn’t seem to be rooted in something tangible. In some instances, ordinary intuition has been shown to be a highly accurate predictor. In a 2013 study published in Science, Florida State University researchers found that newlyweds’ "automatic evaluations" of their partners proved to be an accurate indicator of marital happiness down the road.
Scientists have discovered a second type called expert intuition, which is the sort that comes from special training and experience. Studies of nurses in the 1980s, for example, revealed that those who had been in the profession for a long time tended to make better judgments and to do it more quickly. In a study published in the journal Science in 2011, researchers examined the brains of expert Japanese chess players and found that they utilized different regions of their brains while playing than amateurs did. In particular, they had more activity in the precuneus area of the parietal lobe, a region associated with visualizing images and episodic memory. When they needed to come up quickly with a move, activity surged in the caudate nucleus, where goal-directed behavior is rooted. The researchers believe that the experts’ intuitive skill resulted from a circuit that they had forged between the two regions from many years of training.
The third type is something called strategic intuition, and it seems to kick in when we’re confronted with a particularly bedeviling problem that we can’t seem to figure out how to solve. When that happens, sometimes we’ll take a break and think about something else for a while, and the right answer suddenly will come to us.
Why Intuition Sometimes Is Off the Mark
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, author of the book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, thinks that intuitive decision making often is superior to carefully-reasoned choices. When a person has to make big decisions that involve complex calculations, the sheer number of variables and information can fill the brain with irrelevant noise, and lead to a flawed choice. Intuition’s shortcuts, in contrast, can actually help a person to focus upon the most important information, and to ignore the rest.
"If you want to explain the past, you can do this with very complex rules," Gigerenzer explained in a 2012 Chicago Tribune article. "But if you want to predict the future, that is not always the case. Then, less is more."
That’s backed up by a 1992 study by Harvard University psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, who found that subjects who were provided with "thin slices" of observable data—lasting 30 seconds in length—— predictions as accurate as a comparison group who got four or five minutes to look.
But while your adaptive unconscious is pretty nifty in some ways, it has one glaring flaw. It really, really likes to make decisions, even if it doesn’t actually have good information to base those decisions upon. People tend to be afraid of snakes and sharks because their appearance triggers a primitive danger response in the amygdala—even though in reality, they most often don’t pose a threat.
Worse yet, we can train our gut instinct to be wrong. Even when we do have access to information, our brains are vulnerable to confirmation bias—that is, a preference for data that confirms our previously held beliefs. A study by European and Canadian researchers, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2011, found that the adaptive unconscious and conscious thinking processes tended to use such cherry-picked information to reinforce each other, so that automatic associations fell into line with consciously held beliefs, and vice-versa.
Psychologist Gigerenzer notes that after the September 11 attacks, many Americans stopped flying and instead drove to their destinations, a decision based upon gut instinct. When he looked at mortality data, he discovered that in the year after the attacks, highway fatalities increased by 1,500. "They had listened to their fear, and so more died on the road," he explained in a 2007 New York Times interview.
So trust your gut—but not too far. As famed physicist Richard Feynman once advised, the first principle for truth-seekers "is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
- Sigmund Freud
- Carl Jung
- Ivan Pavlov
- B.F. Skinner
- Answer: Carl Jung
- Answer: Imagining
- The Navy
- The IRS
- The FBI
- The Army
- Answer: The Navy
How to Train your intuition
Learning to use intuition to your advantage.
In the article above, we learned that intuition actually is a real high-speed decision-making system that both compliments and sometimes overrides your slower, more deliberate rational thinking processes. While intuition is sometimes a useful thing that helps us to avoid danger and makes our lives more efficient, following our gut can sometimes lead to bad mistakes. Here are some tips from experts on how to use intuition to your advantage.
Decide whether your intuition is well-informed. In a Forbes article, Marc Bodnick suggests that you should ponder whether or not your intuition is based upon "a threshold level of relevant experience." If you’re making a decision in a profession that you’ve worked in for years, your gut is probably based upon a wealth of knowledge. If you’re a small investor contemplating whether to buy Google or Amazon stock, your gut probably isn’t worth betting a lot of money upon, because the prices are set by professional buyers who spend years studying those companies.
Remember that some types of intuition are more reliable than others. As business how-to author David E. Adler writes, intuition may be a bad way to make investments, but it works pretty well in interpersonal relations. When you go to lunch with a coworker, the impression that you get about whether the person is a potential ally or enemy "may be your best guide."
Contemplate the past to improve your intuition. Talula Cartwright of the Center for Creative Leadership says that reflecting upon your past experiences, and the lessons to be learned from them, is a good way to inform your intuition and make it more effective. "Sometimes a person learns from an experience without being conscious of it or being able to articulate what has been learned," she writes. "Reflective practices help bring that background to the forefront."