“Go with your gut reaction!”  The more savoury interpretation of that often heard advice is to trust your intuition.  I’ve said this to people and often I’ve drawn on the idea myself.  And doesn’t it indeed feel like an act of trust, trusting something in yourself that you just can’t quite put your finger on?  Ah, but is our intuition faultless and truly trustworthy?

We may like to believe that our intuition taps in to some deep, sage-reservoir of wisdom and truth, guiding us in our decisions.  And although intuition may prove to be wise at times, research is showing that intuition is largely a sense of things that flows from the feel of familiarity, from the automatic creation of ideas assembled from the most readily available associations and from biases born in evolution.  Leaving to intuition big decisions about careers or relationships or purchases may be the stuff of human folly.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel winner, recently summarized the research on thinking and intuition in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

How we see things is often primed by context and by what has gone before.  Seeing EAT leads you temporarily to complete SO_P as soup and not soap and the opposite would happen if you had first seen WASH.  Somewhat weightier, voters endorsed increased school funding when the polling station was located in a school vs. another location, and this effect was greater than the voting difference between parents vs. others.

When people do a word association test in one office that includes words such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle, they take more time to walk down a hallway to get to another office.  The priming of the idea of old age slows behaviour.  Even mood can be primed by what has gone before. 

Evolution has equipped us with biases in how we size up other people in terms of dominance (for example, a strong chin) and likability or friendliness, using face shape and expression.  But in our modern world, the body of research shows that our rapid judgements about people based in appearance are often not checked and looked at more closely.  For example, physical appearance has been shown to have a significant influence on voting in elections, even though there is no relation between facial features and competence in government office.

Our intuition is shaped by familiarity.  Safety is a big deal in survival and evolution, and so our minds today seek and soften to the scent of familiarity.  Repeated exposure to things (hello advertising) fosters a feeling of safety and ease.  Preferences shift in favour of the familiar, and we become less inquiring and critical.

Our minds store vast troves of experience that are highly associatively linked, forming ideas, concepts, narratives and clusters of impressions.  Overall, our mind continuously updates (but rarely revises) grand ideas about how the world is and who we are, keeping it all straight if not correct.   From this, with effortless ease our mind invents causes and intentions, neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt.

If something passes by us we have intuitive feelings and opinions about it with no questions asked.  We leap to conclusions, we have answers to questions we don’t even understand and we draw on evidence that we can only vaguely explain.  Our intuitions set us up to be overly optimistic about things we like and to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.

Making decisions that support your best interests may require some time, research and serious thought.  The evidence shows, however, that our minds are quite naturally lazy; we’re more inclined to intuit from the hammock than get sweaty.  Heed Einstein:  “Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing”.