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Why You Should Not Always Trust Your Intuition

New study shows: Trusting your intuition might have an unexpected dark side.

“Trust your intuition!” “Just follow your gut!”

It is common for friends or family members to advise us to let our intuition guide us when making difficult decisions. Intuition involves rapid, and sometimes preconscious, thinking without deeper cognitive reasoning that is often influenced by emotions.

A new study, now published in the scientific journal Journal of Research in Personality, suggests that following your intuition might also have an unexpected dark side (Ward & King, 2020). The study, conducted by researchers Sarah J. Ward from Columbia University and Laura A. King from the University of Missouri-Columbia, investigated the relation of intuition and magical beliefs and whether gender might play a special role in this relationship.

"Magical beliefs," or "magical thinking," is a term that describes all sorts of beliefs that suggest a causal relationship between thoughts, actions, or events that do not really exist. Common examples are superstitions—e.g. the idea that black cats bring bad luck—astrology—e.g. the idea that astronomical events affect personality and life events—or paranormal beliefs—e.g. being convinced that ghosts or monster actually exists. Despite clear scientific evidence against them and prolonged efforts to educate people about them, magical beliefs are still quite common across the world.

In their study, Ward and King (2020) investigated the relation of intuition and magical thinking, as well as the role of gender in for this relation, in four different psychological experiments.

In the first experiment, the researchers tested 514 volunteers to investigate if women report higher magical beliefs than men and whether the number of magical beliefs was related to the extent to which someone relies on intuition. The results were pretty clear: Women scored significantly higher than men on several different measures of magical beliefs, such as paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and fate beliefs. Women also showed significantly greater faith in intuition than men did.

Interestingly, further statistical analysis revealed that the statistical relation of gender and magical beliefs were strongly affected by the extent to which someone relied on intuition. These findings suggest that relying on intuition might be playing a key role in explaining why women exhibit higher paranormal and superstitious beliefs than men do.

In the second experiment, the researchers then tested a new sample of 1,119 undergraduate students and again found that women displayed more magical beliefs than men. They furthermore investigated to which extent participants relied on cognitive reflection, e.g. the opposite of intuitive thinking. Statistical analysis revealed that differences in cognitive reflection could partly explain gender differences in magical thinking.

In the third experiment, the researchers then examined whether enhancing trust in intuition would also enhance magical beliefs, especially among men. Here, 674 volunteers were tested in an online experiment. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In the control group, volunteers had to write at least eight to ten sentences describing the last time they went grocery shopping. In the experimental group, volunteers were asked to write at least eight to ten sentences describing why they think their intuition can be correct and useful to rely on. Moreover, they were asked to describe a time in which their intuition led them in the right direction.

After that, the volunteers had to read three stories that were written to sound potentially fated or ‘‘meant to be.” After reading, they had to rate the impact of fate or destiny on the events in each story on a seven-point scale from one (“not at all—it was a random or chance event”) to seven (“very much”). Moreover, the volunteers’ faith in intuition was measured.

The results showed that people that were in the experimental group (in which faith in intuition was induced by the writing task) indeed showed more trust in intuition. Moreover, men, but not women, in the experimental group showed an increase in magical thinking when rating the stories. However, men still showed less magical thinking than women in both the control and the experimental group. Taken together, these results show that it is possible to increase magical beliefs by increasing trust in intuition (at least in men).

In the fourth and last experiment, the researchers tested 456 participants with a psychological lottery task. Volunteers were randomly assigned to a control or an experimental group. In the experimental group, volunteers were told that they should imagine that they had won seven million dollars in a lottery after using numbers corresponding to important life events from a dream. The volunteers were also asked to write down dates of a past event that they could have used for their lottery entry.

In the control condition, participants were just asked to imagine any important life event with no special mentioning of winning the lottery or dreams. Subsequently, volunteers in both groups were given a fake lottery entry and had to decide whether they wanted to choose the numbers personally or whether a random number generator should decide the numbers for them. Importantly, the random number generator option offered more lottery entries than personally selecting the numbers.

The results showed that women were more likely to choose the lottery numbers themselves after imagining they had a dream regarding making this choice. In contrast, men’s decisions did not differ between the two groups. Interestingly, however, men, in general, were more likely to make the suboptimal choice and choose the numbers themselves. The authors suggest that this finding has nothing to do with intuition but might be caused by men’s higher tendencies towards risk-taking and gambling.

Taken together, the four experiments in this study provide strong evidence for a relation between intuition and magical beliefs. This shows that our intuition—as helpful as it may be sometimes—also has a dark side: It may underlie the persistent appeal of magical beliefs, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Sarah J. Ward, Laura A. King (2020). Examining the roles of intuition and gender in magical beliefs, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 86, 103956.

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