Intuition is that feeling in your gut when you instinctively know that something you are doing is right or wrong.
Or it’s that moment when you sense kindness, or fear, in another’s face. You don’t know why you feel that way; it’s just a hunch.
But what is it? After all, researchers can’t see it in the brain.
While understanding intuition offers a considerable challenge for science, broadly speaking, it involves “learned responses that are not the outcomes of deliberate processes” (Hogarth, 2010).
In this article, we look at the lightning-fast, mostly hidden processes involved in intuition, their effect on decision making, and their role in creativity.
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This article contains:
- What Is Intuition? 5 Real-Life Examples
- How Does Intuition Work? Psychology Theories
- Is Intuition Important?
- Instinct, Logic, or Intuition?
- Its Role in Decision Making
- The Link Between Intuition and Creativity
- 7 Books on the Topic
- PositivePsychology.com Relevant Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Intuition? 5 Real-Life Examples
Intuition is not logical. It is not the result of a set of considered steps that can be shared or explained. Instead, while based on deep-seated knowledge, the process feels natural, almost instinctual.
And yet, while intuition is quick and usually beneficial, it is not always entirely accurate. The subconscious brain attempts to recognize, process, and use patterns of thinking based on prior experience and a best guess.
Paradoxically, intuition feels unknowable. After all, you cannot explain the thinking behind a snap decision that appears out of nowhere.
It just happens.
While intuition occurs in your day-to-day life, it is sometimes most apparent in the decisions of experts. The specialist draws on years of experience, held in unconscious frameworks, to make fast, high-quality decisions (Nalliah, 2016).
Healthcare researchers found that experienced dentists often rely on intuition to make complex, time-bound decisions. Based on many years of deeply stored knowledge, choices are made quickly and are often superior to those that rely on clear evidence and rational thought (Nalliah, 2016).
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the world’s most influential businessmen admit to making decisions based on intuition rather than logical, deliberate thinking.
Out of a sample of 36 CEOs, 85% confirmed that intuition – in the form of rules of thumb (ROTs) – was central to their decision-making process (Maidique, 2014).
The following list comes from the former president of Lenovo, William Amelio:
- Focus on a few crucial decisions.
- A decision is better than no decision, but don’t let it run too far if it’s not working.
- Trust your intuition.
- Communicate big decisions regularly and frequently.
- Don’t tolerate jerks.
- Build a team you can trust.
- Trust your intuition.
- Get feedback early and regularly, and act on it.
- Earn others’ trust and confidence.
- Gain credibility by showing your vulnerabilities.
- You have strengths; use them.
- Trust your intuition.
3. The stag hunt game
Intuition forms an essential part of both work and play.
The stag hunt game involves strategy, trust, and intuition. Players choose, in secret, to either cooperate or compete against one another.
The use of intuition is associated with time pressure, and learned heuristics (another word for ROTs) play an essential role in winning the game (Belloc, Bilancini, Boncinelli, & D’Alessandro, 2019).
Human intuition is massively important – an evolved function fundamental to our ancestors’ survival – but it can be mistaken.
In an annual competition by The Wall Street Journal, teams competed on how their stocks performed. But while one side was a group of highly skilled expert brokers, the other was a group of journalists choosing their shares by the throw of a dart.
Intuitively, expertise should win.
And yet, it appears, that wasn’t true in this case. The contest ceased without explanation, most likely to avoid the stockbrokers’ embarrassment (Arkes & Kajdasz, 2011).
In 1983, Gianfranco Becchina had a rare sixth-century sculpture for sale with a staggering $10 million price tag. The Getty Museum, having reviewed X-rays, expert testimony, and historical documentation, agreed to its purchase amid considerable media hype.
However, when Evelyn Harrison, a renowned expert on Greek sculptures, and Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arrived to admire the statue, they knew, intuitively, something was wrong.
According to Hoving, it seemed “fresh,” which was unexpected as the 2,000-year-old statue had been taken out of the ground.
And they were right. While the sculpture was from a workshop in Rome, it originated from a forger in 1980, rather than a master sculptor from antiquity (Gladwell, 2005).
How Does Intuition Work? Psychology Theories
The study of decision making has a problem.
While we can observe people’s behavior, even with the advances made in brain imaging, we cannot – yet – see the thought processes that go on behind the scenes (Hogarth, 2010).
What does psychology have to say about intuition, when much of what happens in the brain is invisible – like looking at the outside of a black box?
Many scientists propose a dual-process theory – decision-making processes split between intuitive (experiential or tacit) and analytical (rational or deliberate).
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) describes the two different approaches as blinking, when intuition is used, and thinking, when an analysis is performed.
There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.
Intuition (or blinking) typically refers to the use of knowledge that is not explicit and in popular culture might be described as a “hunch” or “women’s intuition.”
When it happens, it’s hard to quantify or define, but it is there. As with the following thought:
I had a feeling there was something wrong; she just didn’t seem like herself.
Hogarth (2010) suggests “the essence of intuition or intuitive responses is that they are reached with little apparent effort, and typically without conscious awareness. They involve little or no conscious deliberation.”
Seymour Epstein (2010) offers a further, complementary insight: “Intuition involves a sense of knowing without knowing how one knows” based on the unconscious processing of information.
Intuitions also appear to be holistic – combining insights from multiple sources and often requiring a leap in thinking based on limited information.
Processes involved in intuition
Herbert Simon’s research in the 1950s into the concept of bounded rationality guides much of the work on intuition. Simon suggested that people often make decisions – and reduce their cognitive load – based on what is good enough.
Rather than arriving at complete and entirely correct answers, when faced with specific tasks, we often resort to heuristics – or rules of thumb – that help form intuitive judgments (Simon, 1955).
The use of heuristics is considered commonplace and the default approach for making decisions (Epstein, 2010).
The process of recognition – a fundamental evolved function – is also crucial to intuition. It appears separate from other parts of the human memory in the brain, capable of persisting in the most challenging conditions with accuracy sufficient for practical purposes.
Intuition appears to rely on the automation of the decision-making process.
Newly learned tasks often rely on declarative knowledge; we must consciously consider each move or action. As a result of practice and learning, this knowledge becomes automated or procedural. Such tasks are acted out without conscious intervention, saving significant processing power and freeing the mind to focus on more intensive or newly acquired actions.
Forward and backward inferences also play an essential role in intuition (Hogarth, 2010). The knowledge we have acquired through experience helps us predict, intuitively, where the ball will land or why the child tripped and take action.
Indeed, the vast knowledge we build up over time allows real-world predictions, enabling us to act quickly and effectively in situations that most of us have encountered many times before.
Learning and retrieval are also highly relevant to successful intuitive processes.
Having experienced objects and scenes before, we are highly adept at pattern matching to support our ability to decide and act quickly and effectively.
For example, when we walk into a coffee shop, we recognize a cup as something we have seen many times before. We also understand, intuitively, that it is likely to be hot and easily spilled on an uneven surface.
Intuition appears to arise – like an epiphenomenon – out of the interaction of many distinctive cognitive processes, rather than a single one. They combine to deliver a fast and effective response when it is most needed.
Is Intuition Important?
In a word, yes.
Intuition offers a reduction in overall cognitive load and the ability to respond instantly while providing confidence in our knowledge and decision making – even though it may defy analysis (Hogarth, 2010).
Such automatic thinking may benefit from, or be hampered by, experience.
When we receive a check at the end of a meal, we usually have an intuitive feel for its costs, based on experience. However, this may fail when we are in a new country or did not realize we had mistakenly chosen the most expensive wine in the cellar.
Intuition helps us survive by providing fast responses that, usually, offer an appropriate, immediate action to address a situation. Such responses rely heavily on “cultural capital,” learnings specific to the environment in which we find ourselves.
While this usually helps us, it can lead to bias and prejudice in our decision making – based on religion, culture, social, moral, and even political environments – and may need to be countered by rational thinking.
Indeed, “intuition can be explicitly educated,” says Hogarth (2010). By changing the content and environment surrounding our learning, we can lean toward more accurate and less biased, intuitive judgments.
Instinct, Logic, or Intuition?
While intuition is defined as arriving at knowledge without relying on reason or inference (Epstein, 2010), it differs from instinct.
The latter is hardwired, a less flexible, direct response to stimuli.
According to Merriam-Webster, instinct is “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.”
It is, therefore, likely to engage less complicated or deep processing. Instinct is innate, inherited, and hardwired into our brain’s circuitry as a result of millions of years of evolution.
If a lion roars and I am unaware of it standing behind me, I jump, turn, and, most likely, run for the hills. This action is more primal than intuitive or analytical – though most likely, there are shades of gray.
Logic is analytical – the rational consideration of a problem. To complete our taxes, we rely on working through each question, completing each box and referencing spreadsheets, sticky notes, or boxes of receipts. Tax advisers are unlikely to appreciate completion using an intuitive, gut feeling regarding how much we owe.
Its Role in Decision Making
While we may be mostly unaware of our day-to-day decision making, it is likely to be a mix of intuitive and deliberate thinking (Hogarth, 2010).
And the role of intuition appears to be no different in our everyday thought processes than in more crucial decisions.
Intuitive decision making is based on our past experiences and, therefore, repeatedly successful in similar situations, where previous outcomes and learning were useful and accurate.
Where the current or future situation is significantly different, we must use our intuition with caution. Without rational analysis, any decision taken could be ineffective at best or dangerous at worst.
When it works well and time constraints are strict, intuition can provide fast, focused thinking (e.g., the boat is sinking or the bomb is ticking). When there is time to deliberate – how do we tackle global warming or racism? – we must rely on rational, evidence-based analysis.
Research at the University of South Wales confirmed that intuition significantly benefits decision making while adding that nonconscious information can increase decision accuracy, speed, and confidence (Lufityanto, Donkin, & Pearson, 2016).
The Link Between Intuition and Creativity
Creativity, like intuition, can be challenging to define.
And yet they both appear to involve the transformation of ideas into something tangible, novel, and valuable in communicating ideas and solving problems.
The idea that intuition is perceptual, subconsciously linking disparate pieces of information, also suggests considerable interplay with creativity. Both intuition and creativity appear, at some level, to combine data from multiple sources into something coherent (Raidl & Lubart, 2001).
Recent research has identified links between intuition and the early stages of the creative process, including idea generation and evaluation stages (Pétervári, Osman, & Bhattacharya, 2016).
7 Books on the Topic
You can learn to become more intuitive (Epstein, 2010). Use the following books to explore the topic further:
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell (Amazon)
- Educating Intuition – Robin Hogarth (Amazon)
- The Myth of Experience: Why We Learn the Wrong Lessons, and Ways to Correct Them – Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth (Amazon)
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Amazon)
- Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – Gerd Gigerenzer (Amazon)
- Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious – Gerd Gigerenzer (Amazon)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman (Amazon)
PositivePsychology.com Relevant Resources
We have many resources at PositivePsychology.com that will help you to explore personal development:
- Connecting With Your Intuition can be vital to cultivating intuitive intelligence.
- Create a growth mindset by Leaving the Comfort Zone, exploring new areas, and learning new skills.
- Increase awareness and Learn From Value-Based Actions of the past.
- Exploring Flow Experiences can help you immerse yourself in an experience and make more intuitive decisions while “being in the zone.”
A Take-Home Message
Intuition is an incredibly powerful tool for decision making. It ensures we respond in the moment, freeing up valuable mental resources to tackle novel experiences and optimize learning.
While not infallible, intuition is invaluable.
Intuition provides us with a “gut” response – an inner voice – beyond logic or learned responses, revealing both who we are and the knowledge we have gained.
If we listen, we can benefit from the creativity it offers and the feeling of confidence that it brings. Let intuition help you grow and make time-critical decisions based on resources that are not always easily reached.
Recognize the circumstances when you are at your most intuitive. Find opportunities to recreate them and tap the potential for creativity and fast, insightful decision making.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.
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- Belloc, M., Bilancini, E., Boncinelli, L., & D’Alessandro, S. (2019). Intuition and deliberation in the stag hunt game. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1–7.
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- Maidique, M. (2014, July 23). Decoding intuition for more effective decision-making. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2011/08/decoding-intuition-for-more-ef
- Nalliah, R. P. (2016). Clinical decision making – Choosing between intuition, experience, and scientific evidence. British Dental Journal, 221(12), 752–754.
- Pétervári, J., Osman, M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2016). The role of intuition in the generation and evaluation stages of creativity. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
- Raidl, M.H., & Lubart, T. I. (2001). An empirical study of intuition and creativity. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 20(3), 217–230.
- Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioural model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69, 99–118.
- Soyer, E., & Hogarth. H. M. (2020). The myth of experience: Why we learn the wrong lessons, and ways to correct them. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.