Understanding Me - and You!
Effective Thinking
Emotional Intelligence
Decision Making

The Case for Intuition

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“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”

Intuition – the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning – can often yield better decisions than cold, analytical reasoning.

How can this be when the preceding topics have clearly shown that we are subject to tons of biases? 

Intuition is driven by what Michael Shermer refers to as “patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data”.  Thus, the 3 dots below are instinctively recognised as representing a triangle.

And if you only see 3 dots, you can feel fairly confident. But what if the 3 dots that you see are actually part of a much larger set.

The same 3 dots are present but it is clear that they are part of something much more complex. The first intuitive response is founded on ignorance; you don’t know enough. And this is when intuition is dangerous and you need to challenge the brain’s false confidence: WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).

This ‘ignorant intuition’ can be distinguished from ‘expert intuition’. The expert sees more dots and is capable of recognizing many more patterns. Grand Master chess players can see a board in-play for mere seconds and instantly understand the position of the game. They could immediately recreate the board from memory, each piece in its in-play position.

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of an art expert who instinctively knew that a statue was a fake from 30 metres away. What’s interesting is that he couldn’t say why he knew it was a counterfeit: he just knew. His intuition accessed and connected the dots at unconscious level and the answer emerged.

Experts see more and have more information to draw on. And when the expert sees only 3 dots, she is aware that many more may exist – they have expert intuitive unease. But as Gladwell says:

“Being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous of education and experience.”

Experience, analysis and reflection creates many connections and these can be triggered unconsciously in the expert brain. In fact, it is the unconscious nature that makes expert intuition so powerful. 

When thinking consciously, you access your working memory, which has a capacity of around 7 items of information. As more information is received, earlier information is displaced. This means that for complex decisions, not all relevant information can be considered simultaneously.

The unconscious brain doesn’t have this limitation – neurons can be triggered that set off a cascade of connections across the brain that allow a much more sophisticated perspective – even if we are not fully aware of it. 

Creativity – those light-bulb, a-ha moments – happens in much the same way.

The more complex a problem, the greater the role for intuition. I am not suggesting for one moment that you abandon reason; the conscious rational analysis can aid intuition at the beginning by providing information to connect and, at the end, can analyse intuitive responses.

But remember, we are talking about expert intuition. And this does not come from experience alone. It flows from the interplay of experience, analysis and reflection.

“When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance.”


All quotations from Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking