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Intuition: How Sure Can You Ever Be About A Gut Feeling?

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Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Mark Twain once said that making good decisions comes from experience, and that experience comes from making bad decisions.

Having turned down a chance to invest in Alexander Bell’s newest invention – the telephone – Twain was arguably very experienced indeed.

But hindsight is 20/20, and when it comes to making poor life choices, I’ll be the last one to throw any stones.

In a previous article, I analyzed some of the factors that often lead to sorry decision-making. I also mentioned the dangers of putting gut before logic – or indeed putting logic before gut.

In the first of this two-part series on intuition, I’ll demystify the gut feeling and look at it from a neurological standpoint. Think Grey’s Anatomy, rather than Final Destination. I’ll also show you when it’s wise to use your intuition, and when it really isn’t.

In Part 2, I’ll then consider the major mistakes and biases you need to be mindful of when applying your intuition. I’ll also provide you with several tools to help you sharpen it.

Gut feelings and decision-making

In my online coaching practice, I often come across clients who are facing complex decisions and don’t know how to proceed.

Should they leave their home to pursue a career in another city? Turn their back on a decade’s worth of career capital to follow their passion in an unrelated field? Walk away from a tired marriage where the only intimacy consists of folding their partner’s underpants? 

Even ‘smaller’ decisions, like figuring out if a job offer is right for you, saying yes to a new business offer, or talking to your partner about your fears that they’re playing the field, can be hugely stressful and anxiety-inducing experiences.

Here’s what most of us think we do when faced with such problems. We’ll start by setting out the pros and cons of each option. We’ll then decide rationally what the best course of action is given the circumstances.

But here’s what actually happens. More often than not, our intuition has already made the decision. We’re merely asking our rational mind to justify it for us afterward.

Where to start  

‘Intuition’ is a bit of blurry term. Ask ten people, and you’ll get ten different interpretations – ranging from old-fashioned common sense and professional judgment to higher consciousness and clairvoyant superpowers. If you’re edging towards the latter, you might want to close your eyes for the next few paragraphs. I’m about to ruin your juju. 

You usually become aware of your intuition because of a feeling that something’s ‘off’. You get this strong, sometimes overwhelming need to be on your guard or to take a particular course of action. Even though you don’t know precisely why that course of action is the right one, you feel certain that it is.

Intuition is your brain using your body as a way of telling you that something’s going on that hasn’t reached your conscious awareness yet. It’s a form of information processing.

In other words, it’s your auto-pilot brain trying to get the attention of your conscious mind by punching you in the belly.

But is intuition really nothing more than just a dumb bodily response?

Our brains as prediction machines

Our brain picks up millions of bits of sensory data every second. The vast majority of it will never enter our conscious awareness, and we’re able to ignore it. Just as well, because the sensory overload would make our circuits crash and burn – a bit like a fuse box when there are too many appliances running.

The brain thus acts as a prediction machine, helping us to figure out which data is relevant and which isn’t. Rather than treating each bit of information as a new event worthy of our attention, it constantly tries to forecast what deserves our focus and what doesn’t. This is the only thing stopping us from having a sensory meltdown. 

Highway hypnosis is an excellent example of this. It refers to the altered mental state you get into when you’re driving a vehicle over a long distance. Despite driving on auto-pilot, you’re still able to respond to external events in an entirely safe and correct manner. Except of course when stuff like this happens.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that allows us to do this. Located right next to the amygdala – the structure that regulates our emotions – the hippocampus creates and indexes all new memories. It also compares all incoming sensory data with existing memories.

When a new bit of data comes in which happens to be close to something the brain has experienced before (eg an existing memory), the hippocampus will generate a match. ‘Nothing to see here – move on’.

But the moment something unexpected happens, it’ll generate a mismatch. The hippocampus will then signal to the amygdala that something odd is going on and that it’s time to raise the alarm in the form of an emotional response.

In other words, your hippocampus is constantly matching new experiences with existing memories. And while a mismatch won’t always reach your conscious awareness, it’ll always find its way to the amygdala which will then respond by triggering that queasy feeling.

Or to use an analogy – your body gets the latest gossip from the horse’s mouth, but your conscious mind will probably have to find out two days later via Facebook.

Intuition – a mystical power?

At the risk of disappointing the flower children among you, it’s safe to say that a strong intuition doesn’t signal particular clairvoyance or mystical powers.

Intuition happens when the brain interprets data and reaches a conclusion without using conscious thought – or indeed proof.

You’re walking down a crowded metro station but feel the need to get the hell out. Or you sense your partner of five years’ behavior is out of character and he might be cheating on you. Neither of these situations provides you with proof necessarily. Yet, your subconscious mind may have picked up on an unusual amount of screaming at the bottom of the escalator. Or it will have noticed your partner being iffy about leaving their phone in your line of sight.

The ‘proof’ is there. It’s just that your conscious mind isn’t aware of it.

Intuition vs instinct vs insights  

Gut feeling and intuition often get confused with instinct, but they’re not the same. Instincts are hardwired reflexes in the nervous system. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you’ll pull it away. You didn’t need to learn this – your body always knew.

They’re also different from insights. These are the fruits of conscious and rational thought whenever we mull over a problem. Insights require a certain incubation period. You need time to ‘think’ about a problem, so unlike instincts and intuition, they don’t appear instantly.

Analytic reason and intuition are considered the two general modules of thinking. While analytical thinking is conscious, deliberate, and slow – intuitive thinking is subconscious, automatic and fast.

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman referred to these two modules as ‘System 1’ (intuition) and ‘System 2’ (reasoning).  

System 1 allows us to spot if someone’s lying to our face, and to easily complete phrases such as ‘Laurel and …’ System 2 is what guided me to put these words on paper and allowed me to fill in my tax return with one day to spare before the deadline.

Two peas in a pod

Both systems are complementary rather than opposites. Research shows that intuitive and analytical thinking often happens at the same time. So, even if it looks like you’re using one system over the other, you’re probably using both. 

Many of you left-brained people out there might argue that analytical thinking is the better of the two systems. You might consider intuitive thinking too sloppy and ad hoc. But as many of us over-thinkers will testify, rational thought isn’t always much better.

And as I said before, even when we think we made a rational decision, it was actually our intuition who did it for us. We simply used reason to then give weight to that decision.

In his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a President (intuition) making a sloppy, off-the-cuff policy announcement, with their Press Secretary (rational mind) then scrambling to justify the decision in public. Sounds familiar?

Where does that leave us?

When should we give preference to intuition, and when should we prioritize rational thinking instead? It depends.

To answer that question, let me remind you that intuition signals a mismatch between your current experience and the bank of similar experiences stored in your brain. Your reservoir of memories helps the hippocampus predict whether the situation you’re in is any different from any of the ones you’ve experienced before.

Logically, the larger the memory reservoir your hippocampus can filter through, the more accurate your intuition will be. That’s why should only trust your gut in those areas where you know you have a huge pool of memories to work with. The more experienced, the better your intuition.

According to Eric Bonabeau in the Harvard Business Review, being too arrogant about one’s intuition is a problem for many business people. ‘It makes us feel special. Any idiot can run the numbers, but the gift of a good gut – that’s reserved for the true business elite.’

It can take many years to hone your intuitive finesse in a particular area. This explains why employees and leaders who’ve been doing very well at a certain career level, often bomb the moment they step up the ladder.

Indeed, having long been celebrated for their excellent business acumen, their inflated egos have created a seriously false sense of capability. They fail to realize how their memory reservoir no longer serves them in the new environment – creating mismatches where there shouldn’t be any.

Conclusion: understanding your superpower

I’m sorry if I’ve ruined some of the magic for you, although I’d still encourage you to treat your intuition like a superpower. It effortlessly bridges the gap between your subconscious and your body, and it allows you to access crevices of knowledge that your conscious awareness can’t always reach.

In my next article, I’ll look at how you can become more familiar with this superpower. I’ll also talk about the most common psychological biases you need to be mindful of when you do decide to trust your gut. Finally, I’ll provide you with tools to create a better discipline around honing your intuition.

For now, simply be mindful when you have a strong gut feeling about a particular course of action. See it as an invitation to take a rational look at what’s going on. Imagine you’re in a theatre looking at the stage. If your gut tells you something’s going on behind the curtain, ask your rational brain to find out what’s going on in front of the curtain first.

Besides, Kahneman himself came up with a lovely antidote to being overly reliant on one’s intuition – frowning. Indeed, putting on a frown apparently activates our inner skepticism and works to reduce overconfidence.

Another reason why I might resist Botox just a little while longer.

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