Can we trust our intuition and are you a thinking person?

Can we trust our intuition and are you a thinking person?

by Suswati Basu
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For some reason we expect more from intuition than we do from logic. Ask yourself if your logic has ever been wrong about anything? Most people would agree that their logic doesn’t always prove accurate. But we expect intuition to be perfect, even though we are not skilled in its use. This is magical thinking and intuition is not magic.

So how do we harness this, and can we trust our own intuition?

Thanks to the following guest for participating:

Karen Finn, systemic coach and owner of Elements Ltd

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Utilizing case studies as diverse as speed dating, pop music, and the shooting of Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Gladwell reveals that what we think of as decisions made in the blink of an eye are much more complicated than assumed.

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers.

Books looked at this week:

Malcolm Gladwell: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Dr. Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 43 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Intuition is invaluable apparently even though it may not be infallible. Intuition provides us with a “gut” response – an inner voice – beyond logic or learned responses, revealing both who we are and the knowledge we have gained. If we listen, we can benefit from the creativity it offers and the feeling of confidence that it brings. So how do we harness this, and can we trust our own intuition?

Our first book is from Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It examines the phenomenon of snap judgments we make unconsciously. Here he is speaking as part of the Microsoft Research series.


Gladwell says first you use your intuition a whole lot more than you realise. Second your intuition can often produce better judgements than a thoughtful analysis because it cuts through irrelevant information and focuses on the key factors. He says knowing when to trust your intuition and when not to is crucial to making good decisions.

The human brain relies on two strategies to make decisions in any given situation:

One strategy is to consciously record and process information, weigh the pros and cons, and come to a rational conclusion about the best way to go. This kind of information processing is very slow, and in some situations there’s just not enough time for it.

And so, over the course of human evolution, a second and much faster strategy has developed: quick as lightning, the unconscious makes snap judgments based on gut feelings rather than thorough analysis.

This second decision-making strategy allows the brain to unload some of the strain of its complex thought processes to the unconscious. Beneath the surface, unbeknownst to us, the unconscious part of the brain processes situations in the blink of an eye and makes decisions about the best course of action. And it turns out it can be far superior to those made after a thorough analysis.

Gladwell believes in many decision-making situations our unconscious makes a distinction for us: by differentiating between important and unimportant information, it sifts through the parts of our perception most needed to make an accurate judgment.

We can make good snap judgments because our unconscious is incredibly good at this filtering process. Just as relationship researchers know which signals, such as signs for contempt, they have to pay attention to in a couple’s interactions, our spontaneous decisions are based on a select few pieces of information.

And we constantly use snap judgments in everyday life. When it comes to love, for example, we know if we feel attracted to a person the instant we meet them. Or even when investors want to sell stock, it can be a gut reaction.

However, many people tend to trust facts and figures above feelings and intuitions, which is why they usually come up with logical explanations for their snap judgments after making them.

Our decisions are also greatly influenced by our unconscious associations. For example in a study, a group of people were asked to play the game Trivial Pursuit, where they were divided up and asked to think about how a professor or a football hooligan fare in the game. They assumed that the professor would get more right answers than the hooligan. So the associations had influenced the players performance.

Similarly, our unconscious associations constantly influence our behavior. Indeed, research has shown that it is easier to be professionally successful as a tall, white male. It has even been demonstrated that a one inch increase in height turns into a measurably higher salary, and top management positions are almost exclusively held by white males of above-average height.

For example, Warren Harding was elected President of the United States in 1921 because his supporters simply thought he “looked presidential”. He had no real skills or merits to show for himself, and is widely regarded today as one of the worst presidents of all time. This is now referred to as the Warren Harding error where we make assumptions with no evidence.

Scientists have also shown that emotional expressions are a universal phenomenon where we understand happy, sad or even angry facial expressions. However, there are some people – like those suffering from autism – who are blind to non-verbal signals: they only understand explicitly transmitted information and aren’t able to read other people’s faces.

When under stress though, we all tend to ignore many indirect signals like facial expressions and go into a tunnel vision-mode, devoting our entire attention to the most imminent “threat,” meaning the most relevant piece of information. So stress can block our best judgements.

Market research is also fallible. When Coca Cola decided to introduce New Coke for example based on taste testers taking a single sip, it ended up becoming the biggest products flop of all time and was pulled from the market.

Such unrealistic conditions resulted in an appraisal that had nothing to do with customers’ later buying behavior. For a truly representative snap judgment, the taste testers needed the right context and consumers prefer things they’re used to, so initial tests are never realistic.

Importantly, to rid ourselves of prejudices, we need to go out and experience new things. For example, using simple association tests, psychologists have shown that racial prejudices are in fact deeply anchored in people. As a result today the ruling class of the US is almost totally made up of white people; therefore, US citizens have developed an unconscious association between white skin and positive attributes like power.

The most troubling part about all this is that prejudices actually do influence our everyday behavior. Skin color, gender and height all shape the way others perceive a person, say, in a job application process.

If you don’t want to fall prey to such prejudices, you have to look for ways to change these unconscious attitudes, and the only way to do that is by meeting new people and experiencing new things.

By now you’ve seen how strongly unconscious prejudices and stereotypes can influence your decisions. If you want to avoid this, you have to consciously shield yourself from potentially misguided information. Hence blind hiring is becoming more popular, especially in the music world where people play behind screens to avoid any prejudice which is why there are now more professional female musicians.

Our final book is from the Nobel Prize winning influential scholar Daniel Kahneman, who won the award in economics in 2002. He is currently professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University’s Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. His 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow has received high kudos in the world of behavioural economics and psychology. Here he is speaking at Google.


Professor Kahneman believes there are two characters that play in our minds. These two characters are the impulsive, automatic, intuitive System 1, and the thoughtful, deliberate, calculating System 2. As they play off against each other, their interactions determine how we think, make judgments and decisions, and act.

System 1 is the part of our brain that operates intuitively and suddenly, often without our conscious control. This system is a legacy of our evolutionary past: there are inherent survival advantages in being able to make such rapid actions and judgments.

System 2 is what we think of when we visualize the part of the brain responsible for our individual decision-making, reasoning and beliefs.

To test this theory out there is the famous bat and ball problem which I of course got wrong because I jumped the gun. This is called the lazy mind.

Okay using US currency, a bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? I will give you a second.

The price that most likely came to your mind, $0.10, is a result of the intuitive and automatic System 1, and it’s wrong! Take a second and do the math now. Do you see your mistake? The correct answer is $0.05.

What happened was that your impulsive System 1 took control and automatically answered by relying on intuition. But it answered too fast. Usually, when faced with a situation it can’t comprehend, System 1 calls on System 2 to work out the problem, but in the bat-and-ball problem, System 1 is tricked. It perceives the problem as simpler than it is, and incorrectly assumes it can handle it on its own. This sadly exposes our innate mental laziness! Well for some of us anyway.

When we use our brain, we tend to use the minimum amount of energy possible for each task. This is known as the law of least effort. Because checking the answer with System 2 would use more energy, our mind won’t do it when it thinks it can just get by with System 1. Research shows that practicing System-2 tasks, like focus and self-control, lead to higher intelligence scores so we need to stop limiting ourselves by avoiding using system 2.

We’re also primed when exposed to a word, concept or event which causes us to summon related words and concepts. So for example, if we see the letters S O P with a gap in between and we link it to eating we may think it’s supposed to say soup, but if we link it to shower, our brain assumes it’s soap.

Such priming not only affects the way we think but also the way we act. Just as the mind is affected by hearing certain words and concepts, the body can be affected as well. A study found participants walked slower when hearing words associated with the elderly. And it’s completely unconscious.

What priming therefore shows is that despite what many argue, we are not always in conscious control of our actions, judgments and choices. We are instead being constantly primed by certain social and cultural conditions.

Our mind’s tendency to oversimplify things without sufficient information often leads to judgment errors. This is called exaggerated emotional coherence, also known as the halo effect. So we may immediately like one aspect of a person and assume we’ll like all of them for example even though we don’t know everything about them.

There is also confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to agree with information that supports their previously held beliefs, as well as to accept whatever information is suggested to them. Such as leading questions like is this person friendly?

The halo effect and confirmation bias both occur because our minds are eager to make quick judgments. But this often leads to mistakes, because we don’t always have enough data to make an accurate call. Our minds rely on false suggestions and oversimplifications to fill in the gaps in the data, leading us to potentially wrong conclusions.

Often we find ourselves in situations where we need to make a quick judgment. To help us do this, our minds have developed little shortcuts to help us immediately understand our surroundings. These are called heuristics. Whilst this is useful, we tend to overuse this and in the wrong situations.

There are two types of heuristics. The substitution heuristic is where we answer an easier question than the one that was actually posed. So for example if we say this woman is a candidate for CEO, how successful will she be at the top? Our brain ends up answering Does this woman look like someone who will be a good CEO?

Next, there is the availability heuristic, which is where you overestimate the probability of something you hear often or find easy to remember. For example we may react more readily to accidental deaths than strokes because we hear more about it in the media.

We also make predictions on certain things that may happen by keeping a base rate in mind, which means relying on a statistical base that other stats rely on. Except we don’t, and base rate neglect is extremely common. The main reason is because we focus on what we expect rather than what is most likely. So even though there may be 80 red cars, and 20 yellow cars, if we see three yellow cars in a row, we’d assume the next one would be yellow as well.

We also remember memories from hindsight rather than experience which are called memory selves. First, there is the experiencing self, which records how we feel in the present moment. It asks the question: “How does it feel now?” Then there is the remembering self, which records how the entire event unfolded after the fact. It asks, “How was it on the whole?” This is less of an accurate reflection because it only registers memories that dominate after the situation is finished unlike experiencing it at the time.

There are two reasons why the remembering self dominates the experiencing self. The first of these is called duration neglect, where we ignore the total duration of the event in favor of a particular memory from it. Second is the peak-end rule, where we overemphasize what occurs at the end of an event. Labour after pregnancy is a good example.

Our minds also use different amounts of energy depending on the task. When there’s no need to mobilize attention and little energy is needed, we are in a state of cognitive ease using system 1. Yet, when our minds must mobilize attention, they use more energy and enter a state of cognitive strain and system 2 is put in charge. Repeating information can help with cognitive ease, while cognitive strain helps with statistical problems.

The way we judge ideas and approach problems is heavily determined by the way they are expressed to us. Slight changes to the details or focus of a statement or question can dramatically alter the way we address it. Even for carefully calculated probabilities, just changing the way the figure is expressed can change how we approach it. It can be the difference between saying 10% of people or even every 10 out of 100 people.

Professor Kahneman’s prospect theory challenges utility theory, which assumes we make choices based on rational arguments, by showing that when we make choices, we don’t actually always act in the most rational way. Prospect theory highlights at least two reasons why we don’t always act rationally. Both of them feature our loss aversion — the fact that we fear losses more than we value gains.

And finally in order to understand situations and make decisions, our minds naturally use cognitive coherence; we construct complete mental pictures to explain ideas and concepts. But we place too much confidence in these images even though stats may disprove the image, we let them guide us.

One way to avoid mistakes is to utilize reference class forecasting. Instead of making judgments based on your rather general mental images, use specific historical examples to make a more accurate forecast. In addition, you can devise a long-term risk policy that plans specific measures in the case of both success and failure in forecasting.

So to sum up:

Gladwell says in Blink that the human brain can make snap judgments in the blink of an eye. In certain situations, these snap judgments are far superior to conscious analysis, whereas sometimes they can lead to bad choices and unfair appraisals of others. So try experiencing new things to avoid bias!

Professor Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow that our minds contain two systems. The first acts instinctively and requires little effort; the second is more deliberate and requires much more of our attention.

Our thoughts and actions vary depending on which of the two systems is in control of our brain at the time. So repeat the message, don’t be influenced by rare statistical events reported in the media, and you’re more intuitive when you’re in a better mood.

I can definitely attest to the latter, when I’m down, my mind is wandering elsewhere and we tend to make bad decisions. What about you, how is your intuition?

Here is Karen Finn, systemic coach and owner of Elements Ltd on intuition.

Please join me next time, and if you enjoyed this hit subscribe!

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