By Carlin Flora, published on May 1, 2007 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
You "know" things. You don't even know how you know them. Yet you have a sense of certainty when driving down a strange street that you really must make a left turn. Or comfort a co-worker who insists she's fine. Or quit your job and move to Paris.
Intuitions, or gut feelings, are sudden, strong judgments whose origin we can't immediately explain. Although they seem to emerge from an obscure inner force, they actually begin with a perception of something outside—a facial expression, a tone of voice, a visual inconsistency so fleeting you're not even aware you noticed.
Think of them as rapid cognition or condensed reasoning that takes advantage of the brain's built-in shortcuts. Or think of intuition as an unconscious associative process. Long dismissed as magical or beneath the dignity of science, intuition turns out to muster some fancy and fast mental operations. The best explanation psychologists now offer is that intuition is a mental matching game. The brain takes in a situation, does a very quick search of its files, and then finds its best analogue among the stored sprawl of memories and knowledge. Based on that analogy, you ascribe meaning to the situation in front of you. A doctor might simply glance at a pallid young woman complaining of fatigue and shortness of breath and immediately intuit she suffers from anemia.
The gut itself literally feeds gut feelings; think of butterflies in the stomach when a decision is pending. The gut has millions of nerve cells and, through them, a "mind of its own," says Michael Gershon, author of The Second Brain and a professor at Columbia University. Still, gut feelings do not originate there, but in signals from the brain.
That visceral punch in the paunch is testament that emotions are an intrinsic part of all gut feelings. "I don't think that emotion and intuition can be separated," says cognitive scientist Alexandre Linhares at the Brazilian School of Business and Public Administration. Emotion guides how we learn from experience; if you witness something while your adrenaline is pumping, for instance, it will be remembered very vividly.
Experience is encoded in our brains as a web of fact and feeling. When a new experience calls up a similar pattern, it doesn't unleash just stored knowledge but also an emotional state of mind and a predisposition to respond in a certain way. Imagine meeting a date who reminds you of loved ones and also of the emotions you've felt toward those people. Suddenly you begin to fall for him or her. "Intuition," says Linhares, "can be described as 'almost immediate situation understanding' as opposed to 'immediate knowledge.' Understanding is filled with emotion. We don't obtain knowledge of love, danger, or joy; we feel them in a meaningful way."
Encased in certainty, intuitions compel us to act in specific ways, and those who lack intuition are essentially cognitively paralyzed. Psychologist Antoine Bechara at the University of Southern California studied brain-damaged patients who could not form emotional intuitions when making a decision. They were left to decide purely via deliberate reasoning. "They ended up doing such a complicated analysis, factoring everything in, that it could take them hours to decide between two kinds of cereal," he says.
While endless reasoning in the absence of guiding intuitions is unproductive, some people, including President Bush, champion the other extreme—"going with the gut" at all times. Intuition, however, is best used as the first step in solving a problem or deciding what to do. The more experience you have in a particular domain, the more reliable your intuitions, because they arise out of the richest array of collected patterns of experience. But even in your area of expertise, it's wisest to test out your hunches—you could easily have latched on to the wrong detail and pulled up the wrong web of associations in your brain.
When researcher Douglas Hofstadter is starting a knotty math problem, for instance, he begins with a hunch. Then he hunkers down and calculates. After two weeks, perhaps he'll see a roadblock and give up. Another hunch pushes him to a new tack, and perhaps it is the right one.
It's time to declare an end to the battle between gut and mind—and to the belief that intuitions are parapsychological fluff. Better to explore how the internalized experiences from which gut feelings arise best interact with the deliberate calculations of the conscious mind.
You've memorized the almanac and you're ready to take down your Trivial Pursuit opponents. Well, don't get too cocky—sometimes knowing less about a question helps you pick the correct answer. Intuition does the guesswork. Case in point: A kid is asked whether Spain or Portugal has a bigger population. He guesses Spain, simply because he's never even heard of Portugal. And he is right; there is a reason he isn't yet aware of Spain's less powerful and less populous neighbor. There is wisdom in his lack of knowledge, says Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and author of Gut Feelings.
A University of London team found that people who went with their initial response on a test of visual perception (questions included picking out an anomaly in a pattern of symbols) did better than those who were given more time to ponder. Whereas the subconscious brain recognized a rotated version of the same symbol as different, the conscious brain reasoned that "an apple is still an apple whether rotated or not," the researchers concluded. When the subjects had time to engage their higher-level functions instead of relying on their intuitive responses, they were more likely to be wrong.
Jody Steinglass, founder of Empire Education, a private New York City-based tutoring company, says that the trick to preparing for standardized tests such as the SAT is to hone intuition by identifying cues—say, certain words—that let you know which category a question belongs to (quadratic equation), which in turn tells you how to solve it. "Right before test time, we go through drills where I will give students a list of questions. I don't have them actually solve them but just quickly tell me how they would solve each one. This way they are trained to make good snap judgments and then to confidently trust those judgments."
Many of us are sure we could never be deceived, and yet our gut instincts about people's veracity are usually off. "We don't pay enough attention to all the channels of communication, and we believe what we want to believe," says Maureen O'Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. There are no set rules to follow in order to improve your fib-spotting—liars do not necessarily avoid eye contact, for example. But you can ask yourself questions, such as whether the person you are sizing up is deviating from his or her typical repertoire of behaviors. If your daughter is using strange gestures and an odd tone of voice, she may indeed be hiding something.
There is, however, a tiny elite whose deception detection could be considered intuitive. O'Sullivan has spent years identifying and studying "truth wizards," people with a way-above-average ability to detect lies. Interestingly, they have various modes of arriving at their spot-on intuitions. Some are very empathetic and sort of morph into the person they are judging. "As they assume the subtle postures and expressions of the other person, they seem to be putting themselves into their skin, or into their emotional reality," she says. Others coolly notice subtle nonverbal cues and voice tones and put all of those together in a meaningful way. And until directly questioned, most are unaware of what they are doing.
O'Sullivan compares the truth wizards to Agatha Christie's fictional Miss Marple, who accurately judges people by matching them against a Rolodex of personality types in her head. Unsurprisingly, astute judges of character are people who have an intense interest in people and a broad range of experience under their belts. "They may be a corporate lawyer who also worked in a coal mine at one point," she says.
Though you may not reach wizard status, anyone can improve general interpersonal intuition. Simply put, if you are highly motivated to understand people, your intuitions about them will be better. Take Douglas Hofstadter, professor of cognitive science and computer science at Indiana University, who has spent his life trying, he says. After all, he creates models of the human mind. "I'm deeply curious about what makes people do certain things. I am somebody who spends a great deal of time trying to understand what the real reasons for their behavior are."
Even so, Hofstadter emphasizes the importance of not prematurely closing your mind when it comes to intuitions about people and their motivations. "You have to test these cautiously. When you have confirmation—then you can make the daring leap," he says, whether it's telling your friend that you suspect she's getting divorced for the wrong reason or confronting your boyfriend about what you think are fabrications.
Because you know him so well, your intuitions about what your spouse is thinking and feeling are fairly correct. But that doesn't mean you should always act on them. Let's say your husband is flipping through a catalog and you can sense that he's thinking about how much he'd like to be with one of the lingerie models.
Research on "mind reading" tells us that in such situations, where "relationship-threatening" thoughts are intuited, happier couples keep their hunches to themselves. They don't bother to test them out; they understand that such thoughts are temporary and not serious.
Anxious people need to apply the most caution. They are particularly accurate at divining any negative feelings and thoughts their spouse might be having. But the catch is, they are probably missing the positive things their partner is also thinking about them. Singling out critical feelings only winds up sabotaging the relationship.
Jeff Simpson, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, who has led this line of research, puts it this way: "Anxious women are accurate at the wrong times." Alas, your intuition may have led you down the aisle in the first place, but that doesn't mean it won't turn around and trip you up.
The spontaneous voyage that creative improvisers take their audiences on exemplifies a paradox of intuition: The more a jazz musician has deliberately prepared throughout his musical career, the better he is at instantly responding to the cues around him when deciding what to invent in the moment onstage.
"Virtually all serious students of jazz copy solos from their favorite musicians' records," says guitarist Randy Napoleon. "All our preparation in music is designed to make our instincts more reliable, our execution more free. Gut-level playing is mastery born from a lifetime of discipline and thought. The more you think, analyze, study, practice, the stronger you internalize the natural flow of music. You are free to think less when on the bandstand and trust your feelings more."
Dan Goldstein, assistant professor of marketing at London Business School, is a decision researcher who moonlights as a comic. "It's not that improvisers are intuitively funny—no matter who they are," he says. "It's this thing of doing drill after drill, and after you've mastered those drills, you've internalized them. You can apply them quickly, and with a cool head."
We think of moral decisions as the raw material of great drama—as warring internal desires or puzzles to solve via logical arguments. But most people actually determine whether an action is right or wrong automatically, finds Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt likens moral intuitions to aesthetic judgments: We instantly know whether we think something is beautiful, but we don't necessarily know why. "The rational mind is like a press secretary that spins reasons for our intuitive moral decisions," he says.
The "press secretary" is all about advancing our own interests, prosecuting those we don't like and defending ourselves. Haidt theorizes that we have evolved this way because of the competitive advantage attached to being able to navigate society's dense web of gossip. Because what people think you do is just as important as what you do, it pays to be able to explain your behaviors in a rosy light. That makes the internal machinery inherently self-deceiving. You may have no qualms about cheating on your taxes, but you'll probably think twice after speaking with friends about it (if you dare even bring it up).
That's why Haidt does not advocate going with your gut when contemplating a moral decision. "The general advice I would give is to check with others to see what they think." We can see the splinter in our neighbor's eye, after all, but not the plank in our own.
We've all heard stories of couples who "just knew" the moment they met that something serious was going to develop between them. (David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College and the author of Intuition, had that feeling about a young woman as a teenager; they've been married for more than 40 years now.) The heart has reasons which reason does not know, said the philosopher Blaise Pascal. But maybe the "heart" is governed by the unconscious emotional pattern matching that produces intuitions.
Bechara describes the phenomenon as an overall feeling that someone would be "good for you," perhaps even irrespective of passion. "It's tapping into your unconscious and triggering prior emotional experiences. We need to trust that this is a survival system that has evolved to our benefit," he says.
As choosing a mate is rife with unknowns, it's not best arrived at by number crunching. Gigerenzer tells the story of how Ben Franklin advised his nephew, torn between two sweethearts, to list each woman's qualities, place a numeric value on the importance of those qualities, and total each column. But when a friend of Gigerenzer did just that and calculated the winner, his heart sank. That's how the friend knew he really wanted the other woman.
Our brains have a number of innate capacities, but they grow out of ancestral, not modern, problems, says Terry Burnham, author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. The types of dilemmas we are good at solving intuitively are ones in which the old machinery lines up well to produce positive contemporary outcomes. Investing is not among these.
Any gut feeling you may have about where to put your money is probably very similar to many others' gut feelings (say, going with a stock that has been on the upswing for a while). It's simply not investment-savvy to pick the same stocks as everyone else—you will not stand to gain.
Burnham advises that you set up a system to ensure that your prefrontal cortex, and not your gut, is firmly in charge of financial decisions. You need to analyze investment strategies and information about different companies. Just as Burnham refuses to get the key to the mini bar in hotel rooms lest he give in to a late-night junk-food craving, he "locks in" his money by making sure he can't change his allocations without an adviser's authorization. That way, he won't move his money around on a whim.
Intuition, however, is a reliable source of purchasing decisions, at least for big-ticket items. The only goal of investing money is to make a profit; cold calculations count. Material possessions, on the other hand, have a subjective value—you want products to bring some ease, comfort, or happiness.
When it comes to complex acquisitions such as homes and cars, consumer satisfaction is greater among buyers who decide with their gut. The experience of living in a house is ultimately an emotional and unpredictable one; so throw away your spreadsheet and rely on your "old brain" to assess whether or not you'll get more pleasure than pain out of the purchase. Resume rational deliberation for the little stuff; research shows it is superior to intuition for picking items such as oven mitts and shampoo.
It's comforting to know you can lean on your unconscious when facing big life questions. And, even better, you've got a mind that can both listen to the gut and keep it in line.