Y’Think? — Intuition: Should You Trust Your Gut?
By Alex Alexander
Way back in the 1970s I was offered a job with a major bank in San Francisco. They wanted me to be their Vice President of Market Research. I wasn’t qualified. Market research professionals—the good ones—have a deep understanding of statistics (yuck!), a reasonably good comprehension of human psychology (again, yuck!), and an appetite for details and minutia (triple yuck!). None of that was me. Not then.
But I accepted the job, and it turned out to be one of the best and most successful experiences of my career.
With triple-yuck working against me, why did I do it? Why did I take a job that, logically, was almost guaranteed to result in failure?
It was sheer intuition. Something about the job, the company, and the people I met shouted “Yes” to me. So I said okay, and loved it from day one. Score one for intuition.
A half-dozen years later I was offered a promotion into a Senior Vice President job in that same bank, for which my qualifications were a good match. It was a nice step up in status and pay grade. My intuition shouted at me again to take the job, so I accepted. BIG mistake. On paper I looked good, but on the job, I barely avoided getting fired. I was saved that embarrassment because of a corporate restructuring that eliminated my department. I landed on my feet in a great place, the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA, but that’s not the point.
The point is that intuition—yours and mine—sometimes is right and sometimes is wrong. Just because it’s “intuition” doesn’t mean it’s right.
What is intuition? Where does it come from? Is it reliable? Is “trusting your gut” a good strategy for understanding the world you live in and for making important decisions?
Intuition is the thought that pops into your head, seemingly without cause. It’s the sense of wrongness that you experience walking into a room without knowing why you sense that something is “off.” It’s the “aha” moment that hits you when you grasp something that has eluded you. It’s that dread you feel when you know, without knowing how you know, that the “stuff” is about to hit the fan. It’s the feeling that someone is lying to you, yet all his facts seem accurate and his manner seems genuine. It’s the instantaneous sense that shooting from the 3-point line will work, but driving to the hoop won’t. It’s knowing, without thinking about it, the right brush strokes and colors to make a painting come alive.
Intuition is knowing, with seemingly no basis for knowing.
Intuition seems to come from nowhere. It seems delivered into your mind from some mysterious source, but science tells us that it comes from the workings of your unconscious mind. According to the experts, the unconscious mind is a “coherence machine.” It takes what you know, what you believe, what you feel, all of your experiences, and even your imagination, and weaves them all together to create a coherent story. It’s a powerful story, seamlessly created from everything you know, and it’s utterly convincing to you. Your intuitions seem right, accurate, appropriate—as I said, utterly convincing—even when they’re wrong.
Your unconscious mind works beautifully, but sometimes it works with flawed information. Intuition depends upon the store of knowledge—factual or false, complete or incomplete—that resides in your mind. If you have a false belief, your intuition builds its conclusions on that belief. If you lack knowledge or experience, your unconscious mind doesn’t know there’s something missing, so it builds a coherent story from what it has, not knowing the story might be incomplete or wrong. Your base of experience and education may be inadequate or immature, leaving you with shallow, immature intuitions; children and beginners of all kinds have this problem. If you have flawed mental models of how something works (your spouse’s thinking, real estate prices, how to cure a cold, your driving skills, how to raise your children, what medications are good or bad for you, etc.) your intuition will lead you to flawed judgments and expectations that don’t work out as you want them to.
The cure for unreliable intuition is to know what you don’t know. When you have intuitions about matters that are new to you, unfamiliar, confusing, or highly complex, beware—don’t trust those intuitions. Think them through logically. Gather more information and experience. Ask people who are “in the know.” Augment your unconsciously driven intuition with conscious logic and analysis. Pack your mind with as much information as you can—the more factual the information, the more reality-based the intuition.
As a way to make judgments and decisions, intuition is neither more nor less trustworthy than logical analysis. Both depend upon your internal database of conscious and unconscious memories, knowledge, and experience. People who say, “I trust my gut” (and ignore logic) are depriving themselves of half of their thinking ability. Likewise, people who say, “I trust facts and analysis” (and ignore intuition and gut feelings) are also depriving themselves. It’s my observation that the best thinking and the best decisions are based on a balanced combination of both intuition and analytical thinking, what I call “whole mind thinking.”
If you want to develop the mental habit of whole mind thinking, here’s how: Step 1: Intuitions happen instantly. You don’t have to do anything, because they simply appear, automatically and unconsciously. That’s the easy part. Step 2: When an intuition about something important arises in you, try to create a logical argument to support the intuition. If you can, then great. You’ve validated the intuition. If you can’t, something’s wrong, either with the intuition, or with your logical argument, and you need think more deeply to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. If you make this a habit, you’ll find yourself making better decisions, and clarifying your understanding of important, confusing, or complex matters.
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