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When Intuition Clashes With Analysis

Which one to trust?

What should we do when our intuition clashes with our analysis in an important decision? Stick with analysis? Go with intuition? How to decide?

Consider John, who is a promising 35-year-old manager at an international company. Recently, John’s duties have been augmented to include participating in hiring decisions related to some of the company’s expansion plans. John is glad to have this involvement in his company’s decision-making process, not least because it gives him the chance to interact with senior management and impress them with his abilities. For these particular hiring decisions, all members of a committee get to interview candidates one-on-one, after which there is a discussion on each case in a committee meeting. John looks forward to these meetings. He sees them as occasions where he can both contribute to the company’s operations and also advance his own agenda.

In evaluating job candidates, John is careful to follow a well-reasoned analytical approach that essentially allows him to give a “score” to each candidate he sees. John has identified what he considers to be the important requirements of the jobs at stake and he is careful to rate each candidate on each dimension in a way that he can articulate and defend. It is a thoroughly rational way to make decisions and also one that allows him to explain his choices to his colleagues on the selection committee.

In the first few committee meetings, John—who has scrupulously followed his procedure—sees that his choices match quite well with those of his senior colleagues and notes, with a certain amount of pride, that his contributions to the meeting have been appreciated. However, in the current meeting that has been called to evaluate a candidate called Jake, John faces a problem. According to his analytical assessment procedure, there is no doubt that Jake is a superior candidate. He scores highly on all dimensions. In fact, he has one of the highest possible scores in John’s system. And it is also clear that this will be obvious to the other members of the committee.

The problem is that, in the course of his one-on-one interview with Jake, John just had a sense that Jake was a flawed candidate. He didn’t know why he had this sense—it just seemed to happen. This feeling—or intuition—contradicted the analytical appraisal that John had made and left him quite uncomfortable. John’s analysis was being strongly contradicted by his intuition. What should he do? What should he tell the other committee members?

At first, John only saw two alternatives. One was to go with analysis. That is, stick to his analytical evaluation and forget about his intuition. After all, his analytical evaluation could be explained and justified. His intuition could not. And there are further advantages to rely on analysis alone: Subjective judgments can be biased in many ways, while numbers tend to cut through these. The results also tend to be consistent across different candidates, leading to a fairer evaluation.

The second alternative was to trust wholly his intuition. After all, experienced business executives make many of their decisions in a highly intuitive manner and reducing such a complex decision to simple analytics may be inappropriate, especially when dealing with people. There are certain disadvantages to relying strongly on analysis. For instance, what if John’s model and measurements are wrong? Instead, John could easily make a case for rejecting Jake based on intuition that the other committee members would endorse.

However, neither of these alternatives seemed right to John. So, instead, he sought to learn from a combination of the two.

In particular, he decided to take the path of sharing his dilemma with the committee. First, he laid out the analytical case for hiring Jake. This was crystal clear. But next, he asked the committee members to consider the fact that his interview with Jake had left him with an uncomfortable intuition that Jake was not a suitable candidate.

When intuition and analysis clash, the understanding of the situation can be augmented by the wisdom of the crowds. For instance, if committee members don’t share John’s view, the dilemma gets promptly eased. It suddenly becomes more probable that John’s intuition was a fluke.

In Jake’s case, however, another committee member added that she too had experienced negative feelings when interviewing him. This information then led to an insightful discussion about how other committee members had reacted to Jake. In short, John’s statement about his feelings during his interview with Jake led to a rich evaluation of the evidence and feelings about Jake’s candidacy. They augmented the analytical assessment.

There are many situations in which analysis and intuition contradict each other and it is important that people develop mechanisms for exposing and dealing with these disagreements. What this story suggests is that neither analysis nor intuition alone should be the basis of a complex, one-off decision. Instead, people should augment the recommendations of one with those of the other. It may, of course, not be possible to reconcile analysis and intuition, but it is important that both receive adequate attention.

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