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When Should You Trust Your Intuition?

Your gut just wants to keep you from getting fooled again. Pay attention.

Source: gamble19/Shutterstock

Some things really do seem too good to be true. As attractive as a new person or situation may appear, something within you Some people—notably those high in psychopathy—can easily present themselves as terrific individuals with nothing but your best interests at heart. But in some cases, they may take advantage of, or even physically harm you. It can be difficult to detect their reality until it's too late, and you've been deceived by a con artist. But you can avoid such situations before they go too far if you truly listen to your inner voice.

Sometimes our inner voice reacts with undue alarm, especially if you’ve been hurt in similar situations before, and it may need to be tuned down. Erring on the side of caution, however, is probably less risky than disregarding possible consequences.

Consider this situation: You need extra help around your home and you want to hire someone reliable. A young woman who seems right for the position responds to your ad first. You feel pretty confident about hiring her, but you’re a tiny bit skeptical. The candidate explains that she is taking a break from school because she's unsure of what she wants to study. In fact, she’s had a few jobs in various areas and has relocated several times in the past couple of years.

You start to feel skeptical: Moved a lot? Changed job paths? Can’t stay in school? You may not be a career counselor, but this seems a little unreliable. Your skeptical thoughts recede, though, because she seems capable and is also quite charming and friendly. You decide to hire her.

After showing up once, your new assistant misses her next appointment and doesn’t return your calls. After a couple of weeks, you receive a voicemail in which she apologetically announces that she's taken a new job in a different town. Thinking back, you realize that you should’ve taken those initial skeptical thoughts more seriously. You vow that next time, you will either call a person’s references or make your decision based on how capable, not how nice, the person appears.

The psychological study of intuition may be traced back to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who proposed the intuition dimension to personality. He argued that people high on this dimension are more likely to let their own thoughts dominate their experience. Rather than take a “bottom-up” approach to life, in which the data drive their decisions, they let their own thoughts and feelings take command—a more “top-down” approach. People high in the intuition dimension of the Jungian sense of personality would be more prone to making the error of hiring the young woman who seems nice but is actually flighty.

Currently, there is considerable interest in intuitive judgments within the area of philosophical psychology. A series of articles in the May 2015 issue of the journal Philosophical Psychology examine questions such as intuition in moral judgments and the relationship between intuition and free will. At a more practical level, positive psychologists explore whether there are advantages to trusting personal intuition by tapping into your own inner experience during a situation. This would potentially differ from the Jungian meaning of the term; it means making judgments on the basis of what you’re thinking or feeling, not what you’re actually experiencing.

The two approaches are not incompatible, however, if we broaden the Jungian definition.

According to Jung, one feature of intuition is accessing your inner, unconscious experience. This could be that gut feeling which is triggered by something being not quite right in a tricky situation (as in the hiring of the young woman). To act on the basis of intuition would mean that you open your mind to your own thoughts and feelings and balance those against the data gained by your senses. In fact, Jung was a strong believer in balance. He maintained that we gain in maturity throughout life through “individuation,” or the ability to counter our yins with our yangs.

In a study intended to demonstrate the connection between intuition and mindfulness, or the ability to remain present in the moment, University of Hildesheim psychologist Carina Remmers and colleagues (2015) attempted to experiment with manipulating the state of mindfulness in participants.

Remmers and her collaborators noted that intuition can be beneficial, “especially in situational contexts in which a person is under stress, time pressure, and when facing complex problems” because “intuitive processes often lead to judgments with higher diagnostic value for the to-be judged criterion than rational-analytic processes of reasoning” (p. 283). In other words, trust your gut when you don’t have much time to think through all the implications of what’s happening around you.

According to Remmers at al., you should also trust your gut when you’ve had a great deal of experience in making a certain judgment. Deciding whether a purchase is worth the money, for example, is much easier when you’ve made similar purchases before and know the value.

How would mindfulness play into this process? The theory guiding the Remmers et al. study was that by tapping into your inner experience, you become more open to those all-important intuitive processes. As a further complexity, they manipulated negative mood-set. Theoretically, when you’re in a positive mood, the window to your inner experiences opens up, but when you’re in a negative mood, you put your mind to work trying to understand why you feel so bad. This process of rumination increasingly distances you from your gut judgments.

In the mindfulness-induction condition, the team presented participants with sentences written on cards and told them either to “take note of your thoughts and feelings without judging them” (mindfulness induction) or to “think about the kind of person you are and why you react the way you do” (rumination) (pp. 285-6). Their task was to judge whether a set of 3-word stimuli shared a common meaning or not. From this, the researchers calculated an “intuition index.”

Contrary to prediction, the mindfulness induction didn’t enhance the intuition index of participants. The authors reasoned that possibly the instructions to participants to tap into their inner feelings without judging them didn’t work. Perhaps when judging the words, they actually employed their more rational, analytic thought processes instead.

Some interpreted the unexpected study results to mean that becoming more mindful or aware of your experiences won’t help you listen to your intuition. Another possibility is that the study showed just how difficult it is to tap into our intuition. Perhaps after so many years of being told that we need to focus on rational judgments, not our inner feelings, we’ve stopped trusting our gut completely.

The theory that intuition can help you make better decisions suggests, however, that it’s still worth paying attention to. When that inner voice tries to make itself heard, it might be time for you to listen.

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Remmers, C., Topolinski, S., & Michalak, J. (2015). Mindful(l) intuition: Does mindfulness influence the access to intuitive processes?. The Journal Of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 282-292. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.950179

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

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