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What if Intuition was a Myth?

Photo by Robin Schreiner on Unsplash

Q: How many decisions do we make per day?
A: Numbers vary a lot according to sources. It ranges from a few thousand to tens of thousands. According to INC (Institute of Neurocognitivism), we make on average 5’000 decisions a day.

Q: Out of the 5’000 decisions, how many are conscious vs. unconscious?
A: 5 to 10… only around 1 in a thousand decisions is conscious…

Yes, most of our decisions are made in auto-mode. This is what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System1 in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Our subconscious brain runs the show! It makes experience-based decisions. This is what most of us call intuition.

Just like machine learning (which is inspired by how our brain learns…), our subconscious brain stores all our experiences in the form of inputs (context/stimuli) and outputs (decisions). It doesn’t always record the exact rationale behind the decision for future use i.e. you can’t really tell why your guts say what it says… It’s somehow like a magic black box that yields answers that are right most of the time

Let me clarify how this black box works through a real-life example.

A renowned psychologist (I forgot her name) had a serious car accident and subsequently became amnesic. Thereafter, she was taken in charge by a colleague of hers. Someday, he greeted her at the entrance of his office with a special handshake. He prepared an unpleasant surprise. He put an electric stimulator in his palm. When they shook hands, she felt an unpleasant (but not threatening) electrical shock. After that, she was invited to sit back in the waiting room. Because of her trauma, she couldn’t remember what happened. So once again, he greeted her stretching his hand (stimuli)… But this time she didn’t stretch her hand reciprocally. He probed why but she wasn’t able to back her act, she knew she wasn’t comfortable with shaking hands (output) but couldn’t explain why (black box).

What I like about this story is that it gives us a hint on how intuition works. We record, the stimuli (stretch hand), the decision (no handshake) but omit the rationale (electric shock).

Having had numerous discussions about intuition, I know that many hold esoteric beliefs about intuition (and enjoy it!)… But I also know that many do so out of misinformation and are perfectly at ease with more rational explanations once exposed to them 🙂.

Hope I didn’t kill the intuition myth!

Well! You brought more questions than answers!

OK. Let’s play the Q&A game then… 🙂

Q: My intuition is signaling that you hate intuition!
A: Uh… Hum… Not really! In fact, I consider myself an intuitive person and enjoy it 😉. I just want to clear out some of the esotery around intuition. 🙂

Q: OK tell me… If you had the choice, would you pick a rational or an intuitive decision?
A: Humans aren’t a rational species. We are an irrational species capable of rationality. Check the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely for more on the matter. You’ll be surprised by the long list of irrational behaviors we do daily. Anyways, not all decisions need to be rational. But when the stakes are high, you’d rather increase the odds of success. In this case, intuition becomes an alarm system (it tells you something is wrong) not a decision-making system. You are supposed to use it accordingly.

Q: In what situations is an intuitive decision better than a rational one?
A: Well, you’d be surprised! But most of the time intuitive decisions win! Consider the following contexts:

1. Remember those 5’000 decisions. This already covers most of our day! Moreover, intuition helps in the following situations…
2. When the cost of getting the data exceeds the cost of a mistake.
3. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break and do what your guts tell you, don’t make your life tougher than it is already 🙂.
4. Emotions are self-evident to us and do not always fit into a rational framework. Makes sense?

So intuition is damn useful and it is exactly what we use most of the time.

Q: OK, what about when I have a hunch that something is wrong?
A: Behind every intuition lies a feeling (positive or negative) that pulls you towards a decision. When your guts say something is wrong (or right). It doesn’t mean it is… It doesn’t mean it isn’t either. It’s a piece of raw information you get but you still don’t know how much confidence you can have in it. So you need to… investigate. Go look for the facts, reach out to experts (or credible friends)… Do what needs to be done to clear out the haze. Then make a rational decision.

Q: What’s the difference between intuition & instinct?
A: Instinct is written in your DNA, intuition is experienced-based.

Q: Is there any link between emotions and intuitions?
A: Well yes! We talked earlier about the external stimuli but your internal state does play a role also. Internal state is broader than emotions only, it includes things like heart rate, breathing, alertness… And if you think of it, it makes sense. What would be considered as a good response when you are focused, and alert would be different from when you are drowsy or starved. This is well developed in the book of Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made.

Q: I see… So intuition is an experienced-based decision system. I repeatedly had good intuition over totally new situations… How come?
A: It depends on what is referred to as “totally new”. If it means, you never lived through it maybe but… let me share with you an endless source of experiences to feed your intuition without having ever done it yourself… It’s called stories! While most of us wouldn’t read that many books in a lifetime, the average American watches 5’000 movies before hitting the grave! To this, you need to add series, cartoons… And I’m not talking about Netflix addicts 😉. Of course not to mention experiences you lived indirectly through friends and family. Can you just imagine how much life experience that is?! And obviously, you consciously remember only a fraction of it!
It has been proven that we can develop empathy by watching fictional characters. Read more if interested.

From that perspective we can define intuition as subconscious memory.

You can also manage situations that seem novel by combining information that wasn’t combined until then in your mind. It is called conceptual combination.

Q: Cool! So intuition looks like a super-power! What are the limits of intuition then?
A: Mainly new situations with high stakes. Because it is an experienced-based decision-making system it doesn’t handle well new situations. The latter will probably have a heavier and long-lasting impact on your life. Just like in the Pareto rule, there are always limited inputs that determine most of the output. Obviously, choosing the wrong socks has lower consequences than coming with the wrong punch line during a job interview. In this case, you’d rather recover control from your subconscious brain. If interested read more: How to Hijack Your Subconscious Brain?

I couldn’t find any better illustration for this idea than the below note sent by Jeff Bezos to his executive team. I’ll let you read…

Q: How can I make my intuition work harder for me?
A: Quite unexpectedly, you need to feed it with data! If you are a marketer, you need to run market research, observe your customers as they use your product, read industry magazines… If you are running a website, you can’t do without analytics. Just like a good soccer player doesn’t become a star by competing only. S/he needs to train for endurance, stamina… And most of the time, that’s not a fun part. Yet it is required. Same goes for intuition, making it sharper isn’t about using it only. It’s also about feeding it… And it’s not always fun. 🤗

As Daniel Kahneman puts it

Our advice is not to do without intuition. It is to delay your intuition.

OK, enough Q&A! Let’s close with a quick & dirty real-life example considering from a rational and intuitive angle the case of buying a car.

  1. Rational: Input (you want to buy a car) => Process (you search the web for selection criteria) => Output (a short list of options with clear selection criteria).
  2. Intuitive: Input (you want to buy a car) => Output (you buy the car you like the most or dislike the least).

Let’s compare both operating modes.

Intuitive mode

  • If asked to justify your decision, you’d have a hard time putting forward a rationale. Most of the time, people would either say “I don’t know why” or create post-rationalizations. We, humans, are very good at that 😉.
  • It applies mostly to known situations i.e. not having done any investigation, you cannot consider a car you didn’t hear about earlier.
  • It is damn fast!

Rational mode

  • If a friend asks WHY you bought that specific car, you’ll be able to put forward the rationale (in this case the car selection criteria).
  • It applies to both known and new situations. Investigations allow considering new information in the decision process.
  • It takes time & energy!

Hope this helps 🙂!

If interested in learning how to work with your nature and not against it, check out my book at

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