Intuition – When Can You Safely Rely On It?


What is your decision-making system? Maybe you are used to analyze everything rationally, since your instincts may be deceiving and you can’t base your decisions upon them. Or maybe you choose to trust your intuition in spite of any arguments, knowing it has never failed you before. Is intuition reliable or should we make a rational analysis when we have to make a decision?

What is intuition and how does it work?

Intuition refers to sensing solutions or answers without being able to explain the reasons for our decisions. It is generated unconsciously and is based upon previous experiences stored in the long-term memory. When encountering situations which are similar to those faced in the past, the brain is able to recognize patterns and generate quick answers, without going through conscious processing of information. Because of the brain’s need to predict, the current experience is automatically compared to past experiences and, after a certain pattern is recognized, a reaction associated with the specific pattern is produced, without conscious deliberation.

Why intuition is misleading

Intuition is often influenced by emotions and cognitive or social biases, leading to errors and inaccurate responses. Moreover, intuition is often accompanied by a certain emotional certainty, which leads to people ignoring external opposing evidence once their intuition dictates an answer. Because of the overconfidence bias, people do not estimate their decision-making abilities correctly and often rely on their intuition instead of trying to analyze a situation better.

The quality of our intuitive capacity is influenced by our experience. The more experience we have in a certain domain, the more reliable our intuitions can be. However, people often neglect the fact that the quality of the experience is as important as the quantity. In order for intuitions to be accurate, the recognizable patterns need to be constantly revised. Thus said, people who fail to do so may have negative outcomes when relying on their intuitive abilities.

Nevertheless, there are several instances when basing our decisions on our intuition may be better than basing them on our rationale.

When should we resort to intuition?

When there is no right answer – if after analyzing all the data there is no answer which is certainly correct, resorting to intuition may be the best option. In many cases, this alternative proves to be better than citing criteria that only seem rational and ignore the feelings which arise spontaneously.

First impressions – relying on our intuition rather than our rationale when we meet someone for the first time may lead to a more accurate judgment which will not shift after the passing of time. A piece of relevant evidence in this sense is a study conducted on students who had to rate the effectiveness of their professors after watching ten-second silent clips. At the end of the semester, the ratings of those whose working memory was occupied during the experiment were more accurate than the ones of those who were asked to write reasons for their judgment.

Deception – two studies used a similar method in order to establish whether deception can be better detected through intuitive or deliberative processing. The results were similar, with participants who were asked to perform a secondary task that would keep their mind busy being able to detect deception better than those who were asked to explain their decisions. A reason for this may be the fact that the more primitive part of our brain is able to identify the more subtle signals which are associated with being excluded from the tribe.

Satisfaction – several studies show that when it comes to personal choices, resorting to intuition when deciding between more possibilities leads to people being more satisfied with the choice they made. When having to pick between different items, those who decided intuitively believe the object reflected their inner self more and were content with the result and were also more likely to share their choice with their friends.

Expertise – people can make faster decisions without going through all the logical possibilities if they are experts in certain domains, but only if the environment provides a certain type of regularity that can be learned through practice.

There are many times when intuition may provide the wrong answers, but the employment of rationality in certain situations may be as impractical, so it is important to learn when we should resort to each of them in order to have the best outcomes.


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