Intuition is frequently praised as the key to good decision making. Should you always trust your instincts, or is it more complicated?
Albert Einstein had no doubts about the source of his genius when asked. “I have faith in intuitions and inspirations. I occasionally believe that I am correct. “I’m not sure who I am,” he admitted to the Saturday Evening Post in 1929. He felt it was far better to trust his instincts and test them later rather than dismiss them out of hand.
In this philosophy, the physicist was far from alone. It was also evidently an important part of Coco Chanel’s strategy. “Fashion is in the air, born on the breeze. “One gets it,” she explained.
You might recognise the sensation. Whether you’re looking for a new apartment, considering a new job, or assessing someone’s honesty, You may have an ineffable hunch about whether something is right or wrong – without being able to articulate your reasoning.
It’s tempting to think of our gut instincts as a mysterious’sixth sense,’ but there’s no need to turn to the paranormal to explain intuition. Over the last two decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have made tremendous progress in identifying the origins of our gut instincts and their critical role in our lives. Their research has identified specific situations in which our intuition is likely to lead us down the right path, as well as those in which it is likely to lead us astray – knowledge that can help us all make better decisions.
The mind in the body
The Iowa Gambling Task is a laboratory game that helps scientists understand intuition.
On a computer screen, participants are shown four stacks of cards. They will receive either a monetary reward or a penalty each time they turn a card. Two of the decks have relatively large rewards but even larger penalties, implying that they will result in a loss over many turns. The other two decks offer smaller rewards but even smaller penalties, making them the safer option.
The participants are not told which decks will be profitable, but after about 40 attempts, many people begin to form an opinion about which ones will result in larger wins. The nonconscious mind of the participants, it seems, has started to notice the patterns of the wins and losses, even if they cannot explain the reason that they are making these choices, beyond having a “gut feeling”.
Importantly, improvements in performance frequently follow systematic physiological changes that occur as participants make decisions. When they begin to approach the riskier decks, for example, most people begin to exhibit a stress response, such as a slight change in heart rate and skin sweating. These changes, known as “somatic markers,” appear to act as a warning, preventing the participant from making the wrong decision, and they may underpin the sensation of having a gut instinct.
People can run into serious problems in real life if they lack this kind of intuition. Some neurological patients, for example, are unable to form somatic markers. Without gut feelings to guide them, they frequently become stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ when faced with a decision. When they do make a decision, they fail to recognise the risks involved. They might put all of their money into a bad business proposal, for example, whereas others would have had a strong instinct to be sceptical of the venture.
Such observations imply that our intuitions are an important part of our decision-making toolkit and should not be overlooked.
The expert eye
The strongest evidence for the importance of gut feelings comes from studies on lie detection. People are more accurate at judging someone’s honesty – and whether they are lying about a specific event – when they are asked to go with their intuitions rather than thinking it through and verbalising their reasons.
In other cases, the strength of our intuitions will be determined by the breadth of our experiences. The unconscious brain searches its stored knowledge for the best solution to our problems, without us consciously recalling the specific memories that fuel those feelings.
People tend to be more accurate at judging someone’s honesty – and whether they are lying about a particular event – if they are asked to go with their intuitions
Consider an experiment led by Erik Dane, a management professor at Rice University in Texas. In 2012, his research team asked students to look at a variety of designer handbags, some of which were genuine and some of which were realistic knockoffs.
Half of the participants were asked to disregard their gut feelings and list all of the characteristics they would look for to determine whether the handbag was genuine or fake. The rest were told to trust their instincts and let their emotions guide their decisions. The researchers also inquired about the participants’ purchasing habits and whether they owned many designer items.
Previous experience made little difference for the participants using the analytical approach: they all performed roughly the same. Expertise, on the other hand, made a huge difference for the participants who were asked to use their intuition, vastly increasing the accuracy of their gut reactions. Indeed, experts who relied on their intuitions were about 20% more accurate than those who relied solely on analysis.
When looking at employer recruitment decisions, Vinod Vincent, an associate professor at Clayton State University in Georgia, US, discovered very similar results. He showed participants sample responses from a variety of candidates applying for positions in health care and asked them to select the best option. As in Dane’s experiment, some were instructed to follow their instincts. (“You should base your decision on your first impression of the candidates,” they were told.) Others were tasked with exercising deliberation, logic, and analysis. (“Consider all available information carefully before making a decision,” they were told. “Ignore any decisions based on first impressions or gut instinct.”
It was possible for undergraduate students with no experience in recruitment to figure out which candidates stood out – but they needed to apply deliberate scrutiny, weighing the pros and cons of each one. They were generally less accurate when they tried to use their intuition.
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