HOW MUCH SHOULD WE RELY ON INTUITION ?
March 24, 2014 6 Comments
The dictionary defines intuition as “a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence: a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why.”
This definition of intuition actually bothers me a bit, based as it is on a “natural ability or power”. Many people do seem to think of intuition as being some sort of sixth sense, or as some sort of magical power, but our “gut feels” are generally formed out of our experiences, skills and knowledge. This means that intuition alone is unlikely to always result in good decision making, but it does mean that we should not write it off completely as a way of supporting the decision making process, as long as it matches our true areas of expertise.
The problem with using intuition as a decision tool is that it is based on “experiences, skills and knowledge”, and as writer, actor and tall person John Cleese points out in a must-see 40 second short video, which you can find on YouTube by searching on “John Cleese Stupidity”, to know how good you are at something requires the same skills that are needed to be good at that thing, so if you are absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly those skills to know that you are hopeless at it.
This means that not all “gut-feel” is necessarily good “gut-feel”, and that intuition can only be truly worthwhile in an area where we have some domain specific experience, skills and knowledge.
I have met some people who are very intuitive about one thing, such as wind patterns for hot air ballooning or diagnosing medical illness, but I have not yet met anyone who is obviously intuitive about a broad range of experiences. One cannot assume that someone who is highly intuitive about the best yachting maneuvers (like Ben Ainslie for example), is also likely to be highly intuitive about any other element of his/her life. If intuition is to be a highly honed skill, it needs to be based on a considerable amount of practice, as ultimately intuition is about our ability to recognize certain recurring patterns. The more experience that we have in a particular area of expertise, such as diagnosing tropical illnesses, the more familiar we become at recognizing the patterns, and the faster can we make decisions about what these patterns mean.
Yet, I have met many people who have told me that they are “highly intuitive” … about life. I always try and get them to be more specific about which part of life it is that they are claiming to be highly intuitive about, but generally with little success at getting them to pinpoint their true area of intuitive expertise. They just have an intuition that they possess this 6th sense magical power.
I also find it highly bewildering that there are people who have written books that people buy, and who also run training programmes that people seem to readily attend on the topic of “… how to create success in any area by using your brain in unique and compelling ways so that your innate intuition can propel you ahead to successful solutions …”. These include, but are not limited to, losing weight, knowing how to spot your perfect mate, building better relationships with your children, and making better investment and business decisions” … and one can achieve all these in one life-time, and supposedly with little real experience, skill or knowledge in any of these subjects.
My intuition tells me that these books and courses are focused on attracting some very gullible people.
I also struggle with people who rely mostly on intuition as the main driver in their ability to sum up people, for example in the recruitment process, and I am surprised when people tell me that they can decide in the first few minutes of an interview whether they will hire someone. Whilst one can, to some degree and in a short time, understand a range of the visible personality traits, such as how assertive or extroverted someone is or how relaxed and confident they are, it is hard to understand their attitudes to work, life and the meaning of the universe without delving more deeply, and I have long believed that one should hire for attitude even more than for skills, as skills can be enhanced but attitudes are hard to change.
I have found that people who tend to hire based on “gut feel” tend to hire people who are mostly just like them, and so tend to hire people who most closely match their own image, which is fine if your goal is to protect the status quo and to change very little, but does not do much in terms of driving change, and the ability to drive change is one of the few constants in business life and success. I tend to believe that gut-feel hiring is more about expediency as defined by American writer Rita Mae Brown who said “Intuition is a suspension of logic due to impatience.”
I have also come across people who believe that investment decisions can be made using intuition and gut feel rather than some deeper analyses of what they are considering as an investment platform, whilst remembering the fact that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. My investment counsellor at Barclays Bank in Bordeaux waxed lyrical about Bernie Madoff, based on the sole fact that his gut told him that someone who had been the head of the Nasdaq must know what he was doing. Madoff knew exactly what he was doing … it just wasn’t to the benefit of anyone other than himself. I didn’t buy the story, based mainly on the fact that anyone committing to a 12% annual return on investment didn’t fit with my own intuition about investment returns, and I therefore didn’t invest and also quickly changed my investment counsellor.
American psychologist Robert Heller summed it up well with “Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it is enough.”