Why You (Probably) Shouldn’t Trust Your Intuition
“Trust your intuition”.
We hear it all the time from self-help gurus who have a tendency to make baseless statements in order to motivate (or rack up Instagram likes), and this one is no different.
Let’s first define intuition.
The ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.
Innate, typically fixed patterns of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli.
Therefore, our intuition is essentially a hard-wired response to external stimuli.
So What Influences our Intuition?
I’m glad you asked. It turns out, it’s based on not one, but on many factors,
Our behavior has evolved through natural selection. For example, our fight or flight responses are survival mechanisms that were critical whilst our ancestors sought out food or evaded predators on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago.
It’s also why males tend to lust after women with specific proportions and features that signal reproductive health.
Genetics help to shape our personality traits. Researchers have found links between our DNA and addiction, sexual orientation and anxiety.
For example, the SLC6A4 gene, involved in transporting serotonin — a key contributor to feelings of well-being, happiness, learning, memory and more — around the central nervous system, can trigger the development of social anxiety disorders.
The Human Brain
Brain function can influence, among other things, our appetite for risk. The University of Sydney published a study which found that people with a more active amygdala (the almond-sized part of the brain chiefly responsible for detecting threats) are more likely to lean conservative, whilst participants with less active amygdalas are more likely to lean left.
Furthermore, the latter is more likely to be predisposed towards entrepreneurship, as they are more comfortable with the risks posed by ambiguity, whilst the former is likely to become managers of what already exists.
Similarly, activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) can influence whether one is more rational or emotional when making decisions. Many a successful person will tell you that avoiding instant gratification is a key to success, and if your intuition is wired to make predominantly emotional decisions, then it’s hardly wise to advocate listening to it.
Our time in the womb can also affect how we behave throughout life. For example, a study from the University of Edinburgh found that exposure of the fetus to excessive levels of cortisol — because of stressors in the carrying mother’s life — can cause mood disorders in life, which again, influences decision making.
Your microbiome — the trillions of viruses, fungi, archaea and bacteria that live in the gut — has its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS) — or our ‘second brain’ — and it is engaged in bi-directional communication with the brain, and can influence how we feel and the decisions we make.
These relatively new revelations about our microbiome are one of the reasons why gut cleanses have become so popular as of late, as an unhealthy gut can ultimately make us feel sluggish, sick, and worse still, pre-empt neurodegenerative diseases and an early grave.
Trust your gut? Not when I’ve just eaten copious amounts of carbs.
Upbringing and Past Experience
Your experiences as an infant, toddler, child, teenager, and to a certain degree, adult, influence how you see the world and make decisions. For example, not getting the emotional support you innately craved as an infant might result in your becoming overly needly as an adult, and essentially, your becoming a ‘stage five clinger’.
Conversely, if you were overwhelmed as a child, and felt your every move being watched, you might become what psychologists call ‘enmeshed’ and ultimately desire absolute freedom as an adult, and find it difficult to commit to any one person.
If, as a male infant, you didn’t get the attention you desired from your mother, you might seek out validation through pursuing and sleeping with many women as an adult.
As Dr Connson Locke of the London School of Economics put it in Harvard Business Review, “intuition is essentially a feeling, and it may be that our aversion to a particular option is reflecting a hidden nervousness, insecurity or fear of the unknown. If so, then our intuition will lead us to reject a perfectly good option”.
Intuition and primal instincts might tell the neglected infant male to seek out many female bedmates as an adult, but if their priority is to start a family, then it’s hardly the right choice.
The current environment we find ourselves in, with all of its stimuli — time pressure, light, sounds, sights, temperature, our monkey brains, other people — can influence our decision making in the moment, so much so that if we were forced to make the same decision tomorrow, with a different set of stimuli, we might take a totally different path.
This is precisely why author Robert Greene suggests increasing your reaction time in the face of external stimuli, so you can allow the emotional cobwebs to clear and make more rational decisions, otherwise, you’re liable to make a decision you’ll later regret.
Time of Day (or Month!)
We can extend the current environment to the time of day you make a decision. The chemical makeup in your brain and your mood will differ at different times of the day — this is why it’s easier not to reach for that bag of Dorito’s at 11am, but not so easy when you’re stretched out on the couch watching a Kevin Hart Netflix special at 10pm after a long day of making decisions.
See melatonin levels in males and females throughout the day below. In this instance, making decisions between 8pm and 8am is not advised as we’re fatigued, sluggish and more inclined to be irritable.
Fatigue is responsible for 20–30% of fatal road accidents… and I’m only talking about melatonin here.
I’ve not even considered the varying levels of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, anandamide, aspartate, glutamate, norepinephrine and other fancy sciency words neither one of us really understands.
Still want to ‘trust your intuition’?
The quality of our intuition is limited by experiences — the experiences of our distant ancestors, our younger selves, and our experiences throughout life.
These experiences might help you make good decisions in some instances, but not most.
In fact, most of us — insofar as our adult lives are concerned — have reasonably narrow experiences, and have deep expertise in maybe one or two areas, but have invested nowhere near the amount of time required to have developed trustworthy intuition in other areas.
So how long do we need to develop trustworthy intuition?
Research finds that it takes 10 years!
It takes a surprising amount of domain-specific expertise to develop accurate intuitive judgments. For example, a TV show producer, in order to develop accurate intuitive judgment about new TV shows, would need to repeatedly engage in making decisions about new TV shows and receive rapid and accurate feedback on whether those decisions were good ones. Eventually, this repetition and feedback becomes embedded as intuitive learning and can be used to make fast and effective intuitive decisions about new shows. — Dr Connson Locke
This also assumes that there are no moving parts affecting TV shows.
I’m sure the management of companies like Blockbuster, Toys ‘R Us, Sears, DEC, Nokia and Kodak, and incidentally, numerous TV show executives, had deep domain expertise and trusted their ‘professional judgment’, but were ultimately blindsided by changing conditions outside of the building that culminated with their company’s and profession’s demise.
The same applies to your intuitive decisions — what factors are changing that could influence the outcome of your decision that you may or may not be aware of?
The Narrative Fallacy
Business books — in fact, most personal development books — fall victim to the narrative fallacy.
We have a tendency to associate a quality outcome with the quality of the decision and downplay the role of chance. Just because you got lucky betting on black the first time, and your dopaminergic chemical reactions are telling you to bet the house this time, it’s probably not a wise choice.
If we’ve made it in the business world, we’ll look back through rose-colored glasses and tell everyone about the linear, deliberate path we took to get to where we are and forget about all of the setbacks, sleepless nights and serendipity along the way — as well as all of the factors we were blind to.
We fall victim to the fundamental attribution error — when things work out it’s because we’re awesome; when they don’t it’s because of something or someone else.
Of course, it’s never our own fault.
But I thought you told me to…
And what about all those times your intuition abandoned you? When it told you to throw a punch and you ended up getting your butt kicked? Or that time it told you to hit on that girl, and she embarrassed you in front of all of her and your friends (of course, I’m not talking about myself here). Or that time you felt compelled to take the game-winning shot and got nothing but…air?
“When you meet the right person, you will just know it”.
How many of us have met who we thought was ‘the right person’ and professed our love to them, only for things to go south fast shortly thereafter? How many of us have looked back on said person and declared “what was I thinking?!”
I know I’ve trusted my intuition to a couple of doozies.
How to Make Better Decisions
I’m not discounting the value of intuition completely. That’s why I used probably in the headline.
When to Put (Some) Faith in your Intuition:
- You’ve got deep domain experience (10 years+)
- You’ve made a similar decision many times before
- Factors surrounding the decision haven’t changed materially
- Consequences aren’t significant and/or you don’t have enough time to rationalize
For everything else, you’ll want to both challenge and augment your intuition.
Challenge your Intuition:
As Dr. Jay Leibowitz puts it, play devil’s advocate; “test intuitive judgments; raise objections to them, generate counter-arguments, probe how robust your gut feel is when challenged”.
Augment your Intuition:
- Collect quantified data and apply reason
- Seek input from several trustworthy and credible people with experience in the decision’s domain
When I’m making business decisions of significant consequence, I will ‘work alone together’ with credible people to rate variables that matter out of 10 privately, and then publicly share our ratings, and discuss any significant variances, before voting again.
That way, we avoid groupthink and can be as objective and methodical as possible as we work to augment professional judgment with reason.
Logic Isn’t enough
You might think that I’m a stickler for reason and logic by this point, and you’d be right, but…
We can’t make decisions without emotions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people with damage to the emotion-generating part of the brain. They all seemed normal but what they had in common was that they couldn’t make decisions. They found it difficult just to decide what to eat!
Finally, if you’ve augmented your intuition and still find yourself pontificating over which path to take, you might want to apply the mathematical theory of optimal stopping, or the ‘37% rule’.
“if you want the best odds of getting the best (for argument’s sake) apartment, spend 37% of your apartment hunt (eleven days, if you’ve given yourself a month for the search) noncommittally exploring options. Leave the checkbook at home; you’re just calibrating. But after that point, be prepared to immediately commit — deposit and all — to the very first place you see that beats whatever you’ve already seen.” — Brian Christian, author of Algorithms To Live By
In a world of infinite options and variables impacting the quality of our decisions and eventual outcomes, It’s almost impossible to make a ‘perfect’ decision, and even if we enjoy a positive outcome, we won’t know what the alternatives could have been — so don’t stress.
Given everything that I’ve covered (and perhaps more so, everything I haven’t explored), we can only ever optimize for ‘more right’. Once we’ve made a decision, we should commit, because by committing and investing energy into our decisions we are far more likely to succeed and reap the rewards — regardless of what the quality of that initial decision might have been.
If self-help gurus were honest, they’d say “trust your intuition + quantitative data + other credible people, and then commit”… but of course, that doesn’t really work as an inspirational Instagram post.