Intuition: Heads in The Clouds

Professionals who make life-and-death decisions use intuition and analysis to make judgments under time pressure.

By Carlin Flora, published on May 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Two Years ago, Peter Nesbitt, an air traffic controller at Memphis International Airport, was watching a departing plane under his jurisdiction. With a glance at the radar scope, he noticed that an incoming aircraft seemed to be descending on the same flight path. "Suddenly, I realized that the two planes were heading right toward each other,"he says. "I told my pilot to stop his climb and turn away. It was a case of instantly seeing it and doing something."

Quick thinking is vital to shepherding planes, Nesbitt says. "We look at a scope with 40 airplanes—each on a different route, at a different altitude, a different speed—and intuitively understand whether things are going well or badly. Someone may later ask, 'Why did you tell that guy to turn?' and I might have to think about it for a minute."

In fact, professionals who make life-and-death decisions, including air traffic controllers, almost always use a blend of intuition and analysis, says Gary Klein, a psychologist and the author of The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work.

Klein questioned fire chiefs to find out how they make judgments under time pressure. He found that though they weren't aware of it before he grilled them, most fire chiefs unconsciously use the same tactic to arrive at their choices. Instead of comparing various plans, the commander categorizes the fire in a snap, by automatically searching his memory for a similar pattern of smoke and heat. He then knows through experience how to respond to a particular situation. But before taking action, he consciously conducts a mental simulation to test out his initial hunch.