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How Intuition Affects Self-Control

In a hurry and a lot on your mind? You might be making a bad decision.

Key points

  • Intuitive, impulsive behavior and self-control failures are often related.
  • Both happen more often when people are under time pressure or cognitive load.
  • Modern lifestyles might prevent us from making better decisions, but we can do better.

In a now-famous experiment published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin asked students to choose between chocolate cake or a healthy fruit salad. Prior to that, students had been asked to memorize a number, which they kept in mind while choosing their dessert, and that they had to report later. Half the students memorized a two-digit number (say, “18”), while the other half memorized a seven-digit number (say, “6853924”). Those with the long number chose the chocolate cake more often (63 percent of participants) than those with the short one (41 percent of participants).

This is just one of many psychological experiments using manipulations (in this case, keeping a number in your mind) to alter people’s decisions. Specifically, to tilt the balance between intuition and deliberation, or to impair your self-control, which sometimes is the same thing.

Intuition vs. deliberation

Intuition and (lack of) self-control have a lot in common. Both feel good, and both might get you in trouble. Intuition, self-control, and the cake experiment can be understood using dual-process theories, as popularized by Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman and many other psychologists. According to those theories, our decisions come in part from processes that are fast, impulsive, and automatic (System I), but also from other processes that are slower, deliberative, and cognitive (System II). When you see a chocolate cake, your first impulse might be to eat it, while an inner voice reminds you of your intention to keep healthier eating habits. When you decide to take a financial risk in the spur of the moment, you might want to remind yourself of the consequences if things go wrong, and balance benefits and risks more carefully.

Intuition is often impulsive, and many impulses are intuitive. Self-control, on the other hand, is not only about stopping yourself from falling into temptation. It is also about inhibiting impulses and controlling your intuition. Many measures of intuition (such as the cognitive reflection test mentioned in this post) try to gauge how good people are at stopping System I in time and letting System II run the show.

There are important lessons to be gained from this research that can be important for our daily lives. One of them comes from the manipulations that experimental psychologists use to shift the balance between impulsive (intuitive) and deliberative processes, as in the cake experiment.

Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay

Taxing the brain

How and why do those manipulations work? Your brain is constantly trying to automatize frequent behaviors and free you to do other things. For instance, think back to how difficult it was to drive a car when you got your learner’s permit, and compare it with how you drive a few (or many) years later. The key is that deliberation is flexible, but it needs cognitive resources, while automatic or intuitive processes are hardwired shortcuts, which trade off flexibility in favor of being effortless, allowing you to drive while answering a (hands-free) phone call.

Experimental psychologists use this observation to "tax the brain" and manipulate subjects into being more intuitive and less capable of inhibiting impulsive behavior. The logic is that, if cognitive resources are taxed, deliberation and cognition are more difficult, and we naturally fall into a System I mode (a more intuitive, less controlled way of thinking) which does not need those resources that have been taken away.

For example, the cake experiment is an example of a manipulation called “cognitive load.” Keeping the long number in memory taxes the brain by using cognitive resources, which are not available when you are choosing your dessert. Hence, your decision becomes more impulsive. Cake! Cake! Too much in your mind (and a seven-digit number seems to be enough), and you go with your gut. Or, in other words, you fail to control your impulses.

Another standard way to tilt the balance between deliberation and intuition, or to make it more difficult to control your impulses, is time pressure. That is, making people decide in a hurry. And the results are often similar. The logic here is that deliberation is slow, but impulsive processes are fast. If you have to decide fast, your decisions will follow your gut more often. Research has shown that time pressure affects all kinds of decisions, including consumption, decisions under risk (investments), and even ethical behavior or how cooperative you are.

Stop and think

And why does this matter in our daily lives? Think about it. The two most important manipulations to make people lose control and be more intuitive are cognitive load and time pressure. Cognitive load means deciding while having other things on your mind, and time pressure means having to decide in a hurry. Rings a bell? Aren’t you doing that to yourself at least part of the time? In our increasingly frantic, ever-more-complex personal and professional lives, we may be making more and more decisions in a hurry and with other things in our minds.

Here is a simple way to think about both intuition and self-control in a practical lesson. Intuition is there to replace proper thinking and careful decision-making when you are short on time or do not have the cognitive resources to deal with the decision, but absolutely have to move on. If you are in the middle of the street and you hear a car coming, do not stop and think. By all means, go with your gut and move out of the way. Fast. If you have to pick a restaurant for tonight and there are a dozen important tasks on your desk, do not start checking customer reviews and look up whether there are new places in town. Just ask yourself what you feel like or choose a restaurant you already know, and get on with more important things. However, the lure of intuition is that it feels good and natural, and you are going to be tempted to follow it even when you are not in a hurry.

Self-control is there to make you stop and think when there is no need to hurry. The waiter is waiting for you to order dessert. Time to remind yourself that you are the customer and there is no real hurry. Just take another minute to check the menu instead of going with that prominently placed, calorie-rich dessert of the day. Urgent emails are waiting for your answer. Time to ask yourself whether those emails are also urgent for you. Maybe it is better to stop and plan your day, and maybe leave answering emails for later, when you have made progress with more important tasks. Are you feeling all positive and fuzzy about that business deal with the well-spoken, nice rep? Time for a cooling off period and checking whether there are other options. The cure for poor decisions made in a hurry might be simply asking yourself “Can I stop and think?”

This is the third post in a series on Making Better Decisions, which started here. We last spoke about The Dangers of Intuition in this post (aquí en español). Today’s post looks at how intuition and self-control are related and what psychology can teach us about them for our daily lives.


Shiv, B., & Fedorikhin, A. (1999). Heart and Mind in Conflict: the Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making. Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (3), pp. 278-292.

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