Imagine you have just interviewed for a highly coveted job. You feel confident the interview went well. You investigated the company and it appears financially sound and well-respected within the community and industry. To your delight, an offer is extended, but you hesitate because something doesn’t seem right. During your interview visit, some people looked unhappy, and the office seemed sterile. Despite the lucrative financial offer and career potential, you feel queasy about making a change and turn down the offer. Congratulations, you have become a prisoner of an intuitive decision.
If you read leadership books, the authors often advocate using gut feelings as a treasured and effective leadership skill. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, and largely recognized as the top leader of the 20th century, often espoused gut-level decisions. According to Welch, “uh-oh feelings” in your stomach should not be ignored, and thinking from the gut is a sign of courage (Welch, 2005). Some leaders like Elon Musk go further and openly reject sound evidence to pursue dreams such as establishing a human colony on Mars (despite the planet lacking oxygen and being 34 million miles away). Typical examples of using intuition in our daily lives include choosing relationships, making business and investment decisions, and even determining our careers (Dane and Pratt, 2007). Ultimately, relying on intuition often results in inferior outcomes and regrettable choices. Thus, it is critical to know what’s behind intuitive decisions and under which circumstances it’s best to think from the gut.
Two Ways We Think
Thinking can be categorized into one of two methods (Kahneman, 2010). First, there is speedy, spontaneous, almost unconscious thinking whereby we allow experience and culture to determine our subsequent behavior. For example, if we see a familiar face, we don’t belabor if it is safe to engage with that person. We also don’t need to think much about procedural things like teeth brushing and, thus, ignore the instructions on the toothpaste tube.
Conversely, a second type of thought is deliberate and intentional, like the type of thinking we need to balance our checkbook or figure out which roads to take to an unfamiliar destination. The major difference between the first and second type of thinking is that deliberate and intentional thinking takes more time and effort. Herein lies the problem. It is often easier and quicker to make a gut decision than it is to use logic and reason. Thus, we turn to intuition.
What Intuition Is
Intuition is when we discount fact-based reasoning and emphasize the role of emotions and feelings when making decisions. When intuitive, we are usually excited or anxious and want to quickly squash any uncertainty that we are feeling. Some folks like Welch suggested that intuition is nothing more than conscious pattern recognition, which develops over time. Others say that intuition is the unconscious process of gathering clues, making connections, and acting on purported evidence that confirms a hunch or judgment (Pétervári et al., 2016). Regardless of the specific definition for intuition, when being intuitive, we lack concrete evidence to support our choices. So, what’s the problem with being intuitive?
Confluent data supports the contention that intuitive decisions are decisively inferior to those made with logic and reason. First, intuitive decisions are usually based on personal memories that are highly fallible and subject to personal bias. “Availability” bias hijacks reason because we are more inclined to rely on easy-to-remember information than those thoughts we want to forget or repress. “Confirmation” bias suggests we only consider evidence and memories that support our intended behavior while discounting or rejecting refuting information. Collectively, easy recall and bias lead to false perceptions that intuitive decisions are the best decisions.
Second, we are vulnerable to “rosy retrospection,” a phenomenon that causes us to remember things as better than they were as time evolves (Peetz et al., 2022). Thus, memories that appear satisfying and correct contribute to more intuitive decisions over time. In the mind of the beholder, intuition is clearly more efficient than spending time analyzing a situation only to arrive at the same decision after deliberation.
Emotion Prompts Spontaneity
When we encounter situations that are emotionally charged, we have a strong desire to quickly eliminate the environmental triggers that we believe are causing the unwanted feelings. Add to the picture that most decision-making that involves intuition requires snap judgment that is made under perceived pressure. In other words, when we are in a high-stakes situation and our thought process is on overload, we may think it is easier to use gut feelings than it is to belabor a decision. Those who are experienced are also more likely to be intuitive because of collective knowledge formed over many years. The problem with experience is we tend to overestimate the probability of being correct, otherwise known as having an overconfidence bias (Dane and Pratt, 2007). On the downside, being overly confident leads to less analysis and a higher probability of reaching undesired outcomes (Blume and Coven, 2009).
When Using Intuition Is Most Beneficial
The best time to rely on intuition is when the problem-solving situation demands quick action, and data-based evaluation is not possible. Thus, there is little surprise that in pressure situations where there is great uncertainty that intuitive decisions are likely to be a more viable solution. If we examine professions like surgeons, firefighters, or athletes that require snap judgment for success, there is a reported greater frequency of using intuition effectively (Klein, 2017). In addition, those who possess large amounts of experience in their chosen profession are more inclined to be successful at intuitive thinking because relying on long-term patterns of experience is a form of data analysis.
Deciding if you are well suited to make intuitive decisions should be based in part on your tolerance for ambiguity. If you have substantial risk tolerance, then you have a higher probability of using intuition effectively. So, despite the recommendations of leadership gurus, you should reject intuitive approaches if structure and certainty are important decision-making prerequisites for you. Never forget that effective leadership also requires authenticity and behavior that reflects your underlying values and beliefs.