What Is Intuition?

It is common to think of intuition as a magical phenomenon—but hunches are actually formed on the basis of past experience and cumulative knowledge. Gut feelings have their value, but they do not always lead to good decisions.

Intuition is essentially the brain on autopilot, performing the actions of processing information without the person's conscious awareness that it is operating. It is nonconscious thinking. How much to trust intuition? More than most rationalists would guess. The automatic information processing that underlies intuition can be seen in something people experience daily, the phenomenon known as "highway hypnosis." It occurs when a driver travels for miles without a conscious thought about the activity of driving the car. Pedestrians walk down a street, get lost in thought, and find themselves at their destination without awareness of the processes that got them there.

Nonconscious processes operate not only in routine activities by also in complex decision-making—often enough, without due credit. People typically cite rational-sounding criteria for their actions and do not disclose the subjective preferences of feelings that arise spontaneously. There is no substitute for devoting time to gathering information about any task or situation. But neither should people be afraid of not consciously knowing every reason for feeling the way they do in every situation.

Should You Go With Gut Instincts?

Assessing intuition can be an excellent place to begin the decision-making process, before applying logic to determine if one has reached the correct conclusion. But the balance between the two can shift based on the decision at hand. For example, intuition is especially helpful for trivia and test taking, since test takers unconsciously access related cues and past problem-solving patterns. In relationships, hunches about a partner’s thoughts and feelings are reliable since partners know each other well. First impressions typically are the product of unconscious processing of many cues at one time, although they are based less on prior knowledge and need to be readily subject to revision. For situations with the greatest consequences, such as financial investments and ethical decisions, natural impulses are best checked by greater reflection or conferring with a friend or advisor.


Bias, Cognition, Decision-Making

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