More Than a Feeling: Intuition and Decision Making – by James K. Dittmar, Ph.D.

Much of what I have written so far about decision making views the process as a rational one. Identify the issue, gather relevant facts, consider alternatives, select the best one, implement, and then evaluate. Making good decisions in this way is a means of avoiding or at least minimizing the effects of the various subjective or irrational influences that can derail our decision-making process. But what about INTUITION? What role, if any, should intuition play in our decision-making process, what some authors describe as “the opposite of logical, rational thinking”?

First of all, what is intuition? Here are a just a few definitions that various authors offer:

• the essence of intuition or intuitive responses is that they are reached with little apparent effort, and typically without conscious awareness. They involve little or no conscious deliberation
• intuition is a thought process that occurs automatically
• Intuition consists of fixed analyses transformed into a quick response habit. It is the result of many years of experience and training

Some researcher have found that, when asking how or why a certain decision was made, decision makers (who apparently used an intuitive process), could not really answer specifically. It was mostly, “I don’t know…it [the decision] just came to me.” Or, “I just knew that was what we should do.
Should we use intuition when making decisions?

As is often with important issues, there are differences of opinion regarding the use and effectiveness of intuition in decision making. Advocates of intuition as a valid decision-making tool often believe that, when we use a rational process, we do so knowing (or perhaps not knowing) that we never have all the data available. That’s why using intuition helps to fill that gap of incomplete information. Thus, rational decision making and using intuition are referred to as “two sides of the same coin.”

A great example where using intuition (in specific situations and in particular professions) is a clear advantage is the research done by Klein among firefighters and other first responders. He found that seasoned, expert (not novice) firefighters drew upon reservoirs of past experience and recognized patterns of previous fires to make quick and life-saving decisions.

Had the experienced firefighters instead used a rational, data gathering, alternative-generating process, and waited until completing that process to make their decision, precious time would have passed and the results would have been tragic. Klein concluded that intuition is about “perception.” In these cases, he states, “The formal rules of decision making are almost incidental.”

Using intuition, though, in circumstances that are complex, uncertain or unknown, and when you are under stress is likely to result in a flawed decision. In addition, when experts in specific areas try to use intuition in situations with which they are not familiar, big mistakes can occur.

As an example of this “overconfidence” error, I recall a case study that used a number of times in a strategy course. The focus of this case study was a very successful company that manufactured and sold bicycles of exceptional quality. The founder/owner of his company got a “nonstrategic” hankering to build and sell motorcycles–a venture of which he knew little in terms of the market and how to build quality motorcycles.
Students reviewed the case and then had to recommend whether or not he should follow his “dream.” In every instance, students concluded, “No.” Unfortunately, the owner did proceed resulting the eventual bankruptcy of his company, the shut-down of the bicycle manufacturing facility, the sale of the company, and the loss of many good-paying jobs for the small community in which his company resided.

Remember, too, that certain “cognitive bias and heuristics” or “mind games” can happen to us when making decisions. These mind games are also unconscious and can affect, negatively, the way we gather and use data when making decisions. Add this to the problem of “bad intuition” and it is easy to understand why some do not advocate the use of intuition. If they do it is only under very narrow and specialized circumstances.
Next question: Can intuition can be developed?

Again, it depends on who your read.

Some who have studied this question conclude with a “yes” under these conditions:

• If you work in environments, such as medicine, firefighting (example above) or other very specialized professions in which “cause and effect” are clearly evident and consistent over time, and

• if there are sufficient opportunities for robust learning (a lot of practice and quick, accurate feedback)

Again, though, there are those who dispute this narrow view of developing intuition. They offer suggestions such as:

• nurture your creativity
• trust yourself
• use visualization
• practice
• create an intuitive culture
• learn from the past
• trust yourself

Among many, many more.

Some even identify characteristics of intuitive decision makers including:

• concentration
• self-awareness
• creativity
• the ability to process and filter information
• confidence
• a sense of timing

I trust this blog post has given you something to “think about” when it comes to using intuition when making decisions.

It is up to you to decide.

Most decidedly,
Jim Dittmar

Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash