Intuition is an ultimate experience, beyond words: We know more than we can tell. This phenomenon upsets many who believe in rationality as a purely conscious activity. People often confuse intuition with a sixth sense or the arbitrary judgments of inept decision makers. But intuition is neither caprice nor irrationality; it is unconscious intelligence based on years of experience. We feel in an instant what we should do, but cannot explain why. Most people recognize a face without being able to specify its features. An experienced physician can sense in a blink of an eye when something is wrong with a patient, without being able to articulate why. Chess masters such as Judith Polgár and Magnus Carlson report that their intuitive play is the secret of their success.
Nevertheless, mistrust in intuition flourishes. Some psychological theories even portray intuition as generally inferior to reason. Representatives of tech companies contrast dubious human hunches with trustworthy algorithms in their efforts to convince us to relinquish our private data and let machines run our lives. This mistrust was not born in the digital age. Albert Einstein already noted it when he noted:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Whereas calling something intuitive indicates great respect in the hard sciences, the term is often used to indicate irrationality in the social sciences, as something that should be avoided whenever possible.
Intuition and reason are no warring parties. The physician’s hunch initiates a deliberate search for the ailment. A musician’s conscious and meticulous practice is the very basis from which those precious moments of flow emerge, where improvisation progresses without conscious guidance. Similarly, in an interview with 17 Nobel Laureates, the majority explained that their “big leap” had occurred as they switched back and forth between intuition and analysis. This interplay has enabled generations of scientists and engineers to create technology. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician who famously wrote “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” was also one of the inventors of the calculus of probability. Intuition and reason not only complement together, they also depend on each other. Without reason, there would be no mathematics. Without intuition, there would be little innovation.
Fear of Admitting Gut Decisions
What role does intuition have in business? I asked hundreds of executives from large international corporations how often the professional decisions they are ultimately gut decisions (made after they had looked at the available data). On average, these amounted to 50 percent of all important decisions. Yet the same executives would never openly admit to this, fearing blame if something goes wrong because they cannot explain why the decision was initially made. Making intuitive decisions requires the courage to take responsibility and be accountable. Few managers appear to be willing to hazard this risk.
I have observed two ways in which managers cope with this anxiety. The first is to hire a consulting firm to justify the intuitive decision after the fact. On the condition of anonymity, the principal of one of the largest consulting firms worldwide disclosed to me that more than 50 percent of their customer contacts involved justifying decisions post hoc. That gives an idea of the time, resources, and brainpower squandered on concealing intuitive decisions and avoiding responsibility. A second strategy is even more expensive for the companies: defensive decision making. It occurs when a manager intuits that option A is the best for the company yet nevertheless recommends and pursues a second-best option B that is less threatening for their own career if something goes awry. In my studies with managers from large corporations, the majority admitted to such practices for an average of 30 to 40 percent of all their important professional decisions. Be it hiring consulting firms or choosing second-best decisions, both strategies to camouflage intuitive decisions are costly for businesses.
The War Against Intuition
Even into the 20th century, prominent psychologists were convinced that men were rational and women intuitive and that only men could master abstract thought. The founder and first president of the American Psychological Association, G. Stanley Hall, opted against coeducation, maintaining that women were intuitive and too impatient for analysis and science. It was asserted as a scientific fact that women’s intuitive, fast, associative, and concrete thinking prevented them from grasping abstract moral principles; some even claimed that women who lied were simply incapable of comprehending that their actions were evil. According to this line of reasoning, women required men’s guidance and lacked aptitude for politics, economics, and other important decision-making domains. Eventually, women and men were recognized as equal partners, but intuition and rationality were kept unequal. In the 21st century, however, this misguided division between intuition and reason returned in prominent psychological theories, known as dual-system theories. Just as female intuition had been opposed to male reason, two antagonistic systems were posited in human minds: one fast, intuitive, inconsistent, and often wrong, and the other slow, rational, and apparently always right. Humans are said to err if the rational “System 2” does not pay sufficient attention and fails to correct what the intuitive “System 1” gets wrong. In this more current view, everyone’s intuition is riddled by dozens of cognitive biases, many of which have become household words. This false dichotomy has been tailored to justify governmental paternalism that nudges citizens out of their intuitive errors. It has also been used to promote technological paternalism, the claim that AI systems and the tech companies behind them would fare much better at making our personal decisions.
The Nature of Intuition
Countering these beliefs, I show in The Intelligence of Intuition that intuition is a form of unconscious intelligence based on years of experience. The scientific study of intuition shows that intuition is not irrational caprice but is instead based on smart heuristics. It has evolved to deal with uncertain and dynamic situations where logic and big data do not suffice. I analyze the role of intuition in such varied fields as sports, management, and moral decision making. How do baseball outfielders use intuition to catch a flyball? Experienced players rely on smart rules that are intuitive, together with deliberate thinking. When can we trust the first option that comes to mind, and when not? Experiments show that for experts, the first option that comes to mind is typically the best, the second the second-best, and so on. That explains why it pays experts to make decisions fast, and not wait until lower-grade options come to mind. How do we make moral decisions? Philosophers have praised moral reasoning, but most of the time, moral intuitions occur first and reasoning is used to justify these. In particular, moral behavior is based on social rules of thumb, as witnessed by the difficulties in arguing someone out of their moral beliefs.
The theoretical framework for understanding the nature of intuition is that of ecological rationality, the study of how mental processes are adapted to their environments. It is based on Herbert Simon’s concept of bounded rationality, that is, how people make decisions in the real world of uncertainty – in situations where we cannot know all future states of the world and their consequences. Like nature and nurture, intuition and deliberate reasoning act hand in hand. They are not antagonistic, nor is one of the partners superior. The false dichotomy between intuition and reason serves obscured goals to exercise power over others. The Intelligence of Intuition provides a new appreciation of one of the greatest gifts given to the human mind.
Author: Gerd Gigerenzer