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When Should You Trust Your Gut? Here’s What the Science Says

Every day, we are met with intuitions that appear to provide the answers to questions in our lives. We step outside on a sunny day, and a nagging feeling in our gut urges us to go back in and fetch our umbrella. We watch the big fight and develop a powerful hunch early in the contest that the hometown boxer will prevail. Within 60 seconds of interviewing a candidate, we just know, beyond a shadow of a doubt — she’s the one.

While the common wisdom is that we should “trust our gut,” smart decision makers know it can’t be that simple. Surely there are times when intuition guides us accurately, and other times when it leads us astray. But how are we to tell the difference?

In order to answer that question, we need to, first, demystify intuition and understand precisely how it works. We’ll learn that the process that delivers these gut feelings to us, while on the surface appearing simple and crude, is quite complex and sophisticated.

Understanding Intuition

In the 1984 film The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, a determined cyborg from the postapocalyptic, dystopian future, is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, whose son will someday become the leader of a resistance movement against the machines. Through frequent point of view shots, we get a sense of what the Terminator sees: it’s like looking through the lens of a highly advanced DSLR camera.

A dotted square, which acts as a point of focus, meanders across the visual field, scanning the environment, attempting to recognize objects: people, items, situations. When an object is recognized, rapid analyses are performed, and the results — critical data about those objects (e.g. size, distance, friend or foe) — appear overlaid on top of the Terminator’s field of vision, helping him to make decisions and navigate his environment.

The Terminator was supposed to offer us a glimpse into the distant future, where machines, or possibly even humans, through artificial intelligence or augmented reality, may have these kinds of advanced sensory capabilities.

But in a sense, humans have always been equipped with Terminator-like vision. Our intuition works in much the same way.

Similar to Terminator, humans are constantly scanning their environment, trying to detect familiar situations. Just the other day, walking down the street in Midtown Manhattan, I glimpsed a tall man far off in the distance, facing me, smiling and waving. I didn’t recognize the person, but there was something about the situation, a subtle feeling of danger, that I did recognize. The recognition triggered a rapid analysis, without me even being aware, and just like the Terminator, the results were quickly delivered to me. Specifically, as Gary Klein details in his landmark book Sources of Power, four kinds of information:

1. Relevant Cues

When we first detect a familiar situation, we often need more information to figure out what it all means. Intuition makes our job easier by providing us, in the midst of a million different stimuli we could focus on, the relevant cues — particular features that we ought to pay close attention to.

In my case, the relevant cues were related to attire. Is the person waving at me wearing a shirt brandishing the name and logo of a non-profit organization? Were they carrying a clipboard in their hands?

2. Expectancies

Intuition also answers the question: Given this familiar situation, what should I expect? Three answers were provided to me.

  • Interruption — Be prepared for this person to stop you, in the middle of the street, asking for a minute of your time.
  • Conversation — Be forewarned that one minute will quickly become 15, as they try passionately to persuade you of their cause — animal rights, climate change, gun control, etc.
  • The ask — Know that they will ask you to pledge money for their cause. (A noble pursuit, of course, but bad timing when you’re in the middle of the street, just trying to get on with your day.)

3. Plausible Goals

Next, given the situation, intuition informs us of plausible goals we might want to have. In my case, the goal was simple: avoid the tall man at all costs.

4. Typical Actions

Finally, intuition suggests actions to us. For me, three emerged: look down, pretending not too notice the man and walk right on by. Or put your cell phone up to your ear, pretending to be occupied with a call. Or, the safest course of action, the one I ended up taking, cross over to the other side of the street one full block in advance before they even have a chance to engage you.

Of course unlike the Terminator, this information doesn’t normally comes to us visually, but rather in the form of gut feelings. But where in the world does that information come from?

Where Does Intuition Come From? Pattern Matching

Intuition comes from patterns we’ve identified in our past experiences. From the time we are born, we constantly seek out patterns in our environment. We see 2+2 consistently paired with the number 4. We notice that spotted, long-necked animals are called giraffes. We learn that every time someone — our spouse, our boss, our parole officer — says “we need to talk,” what usually follows is never good news. And in my case, I noticed, through several painfully long conversations, that when a stranger with a clipboard smiles at you from a distance, chances are they want your money.

These patterns, once identified, get stored away in our long-term memory. At the risk of making an overly simplistic metaphor, picture rows of data being populated in an epically long excel spreadsheet. In the left-hand columns, imagine the patterns, the sets of related cues that we notice across similar situations. And in the right-hand columns, house all the various bits of information — expectancies, related cues, plausible goals, typical actions — that we’ve learned to associate with those patterns.

The next time we detect one of these patterns (or something similar), our brain finds it in the spreadsheet and delivers the corresponding data to us.

And now that we understand where the information behind our intuitions comes from, we should ask again the central question: When can we trust it?

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, two leading scholars on intuition who wrote the definitive paper on the topic, titled “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise,” agree that the answer isn’t contained in the intuitions themselves. Intuitions come with what Kahneman calls the illusion of validity: a subjective sense, often misleading and dangerous, of truth.

Instead, in order to assess the reliability of an intuition, we must evaluate the person who is experiencing the intuition and the environment in which that person operates. We can do this by asking two critical questions.

How Much Quality Practice Have You Had?

In order to trust our intuition, we need to have had enough practice. Our intuitions are only as good as the database of patterns that we draw them from. So we need to have had sufficient experience noticing and revising patterns in order to have built up a database that is both robust and refined.

A professional poker player with a decade of experience has likely had the amount of trial and error necessary to build up a rich and nuanced set of patterns as to what a winning hand looks like. When she peeks at her cards and is struck immediately by a feeling of joy, she’d be wise to take that intuition very seriously.

On the other hand, a neophyte with only 50 hands under his belt is fooling himself if he think he’s had enough practice to learn the same number of patterns. He ought to be a bit more skeptical of what his gut is telling him.

But while the quantity of practice is important for developing reliable intuitions, just as important is the quality. The highest quality form of practice, the one that most reliably leads to accurate intuitions, is known as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice isn’t just rote repetition — it involves constant adjustment based on feedback.

These adjustments are critical, because the patterns that we initially recognize are often slightly off the mark, or just simply wrong. Feedback helps us know when, allowing us to revise those patterns accordingly.

For example an admissions advisor who diligently follows up with his clients is able to test his assumptions and learn from his mistakes. After continually revising the patterns in his long-term memory, he develops more accurate intuitions over time. So when he scans your high school resume and tells you that you have a good chance of getting into an ivy league school, believe him.

An admissions advisor who hasn’t bothered to follow up with clients never comes to know how often he was wrong. He might have built up a huge database of patterns, but without feedback, the database is quite possibly littered with errors. When he tells you that you’re a shoo-in for Yale, start making a list of safety schools.

But even with the right quality and quantity of practice, there’s another big question we must ask to determine the trustworthiness of our gut feelings. And this one has less to do with the expert and more to do with the domain that the expert operates in.

Is It a High-Validity Environment?

All the practice in the world won’t mean anything for the reliability of your intuitions, unless you operate in an environment that has what Kahneman and Klein call high validity. High-validity environments are ones of “sufficient regularity” that provide valid cues to the nature of the situation. In other words, these environments are predictable in the strict sense of the word: able to be predicted.

Kahneman and Klein point out that fireground commanders operate in a high-validity environment. Before a burning building collapses, there are likely to be early indicators — sights, sounds, smells, etc. An experienced fireground commander will be able to pick up on these consistent patterns, providing a solid basis for recognizing future building collapses.

On the other hand, an A&R executive trying to discover the next Whitney Houston likely operates in a low-validity environment. When an artist’s debut album goes platinum, were there like to be early indicators that he or she would become a star? Doubtful. The pop music marketplace is complex and unpredictable. Commercial success often comes down to countless factors, including timing and, quite frankly, luck.

But that doesn’t stop us, the pattern-obsessed machines that we are, from trying. An experienced A&R might have noticed, over the years, that a disproportionate number of attractive young men with green eyes and neck tattoos go on to achieve blockbuster success. He begins to unknowingly associate one with the other. The next time he sees someone who fits the pattern, he gets a giddy feeling inside. But the intuition is based on a false pattern. It’s not a knock on the A&R as much as it is on the environment in which he operates.

Get Comfortable With Fractionated Expertise

When you ask yourself these two questions enough — Have I had enough practice? Am I operating in a high validity environment? — you’ll notice a clear pattern. In some of the domains we operate in, the answer to both questions is yes, but in others, the answer to at least one of those questions is no.

It sure would be nice if professionals could know that all of their intuitions were either reliable or unreliable; unfortunately, the world isn’t that simple. Instead, the norm is what Kahneman and Klein refer to as fractionated expertise — that is to say, in some domains we can trust our intuition, but in others we can’t.

Auditors, for example, as Kahneman and Klein point out, normally have a lot of good practice when it comes to accounts receivable, but not so much when it comes to spotting fraud. Consequently, they should be more trusting of their intuitions regarding the former than they are the latter.

Weather forecasters have a lot of experience with rain, but less with hail. So we should be quicker to trust their predictions about rain than we are with hail.

Most people have had a lot of practice sizing up the emotional states of people whom they’ve known for many years, but less so when it comes to people they’ve met for the first time. Perhaps they should be more apt to trust their intuitions about their friends’ emotional states than strangers’.

This process of analyzing the domains in which we can trust our intuitions and those we can’t is difficult, but a key part of being an effective decision maker is understanding our own personal boundaries of expertise.

***

Intuition is a highly sophisticated process. We notice patterns through past experiences, store these patterns and associated information into long-term memory, and then retrieve the information when we see these patterns again in our environment.

When can we trust that information? When the expert is operating in a high-validity environment, and when they’ve had enough practice to learn its regular patterns.

This means we’re likely to have reliable intuitions in certain domains and unreliable ones in others. Think of our intuitions as a compass and the world as a vast land dotted with areas of high magnetic resonance. The compass is invaluable in certain areas and, corrupted by the magnetic field, misleading in others. One of the most important tasks of professionals is to draw a map for ourselves, so we know when to trust the compass and when to put it away.

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