How much should we rely on our intuition?
Intuition. It’s the feeling you get deep in the pit of your stomach that tells you something isn’t right, or the little voice in your head that says you should walk home a different way. Intuition often helps us make decisions without conscious reasoning and it has even guided some of the world’s best thinkers.
For Steve Jobs, intuition was more powerful than intellect and Einstein has been attributed to saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
A recent study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of NSW published in Psychological Science found intuition can be measured and that unconscious emotions can help decision-making.
“Most people use intuition when making certain decisions,” says one of the study’s authors, Associate Professor Joel Pearson.
“It’s like when you order seafood at a restaurant and when the waiter puts it down, something makes you second guess your choice. It might be the smell, how it looks, the décor of the restaurant – all this is processed by your brain and helps you decide if you are going to eat the meal or not.”
Pearson’s team conducted a study where they exposed participants to subliminal emotional images (e.g. happy ones like a puppy or negative ones such as a shark attack) in one eye and flashing lights in the other eye. “It’s a bit like the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Inception where he infiltrates the subconscious,” says Pearson. “The emotional images were entirely subconscious – we slipped them in without them knowing.”
While participants were exposed to the flashing lights (and the subconscious emotional images) they also had to look at hundreds of moving dots – a kind of visual static – and decide whether the dots were moving to the left or the right. Pearson and his colleagues attached one emotional image when the dots moved to the left and another when the dots moved to the right. It didn’t matter whether the images were positive or negative; the results were striking.
“We found that when participants were looking at the dots and also had the unconscious emotional information, their accuracy was boosted,” says Pearson. “They made faster and more accurate decisions. Even their confidence increased.”
Pearson’s research isn’t the first to show the power of intuition. Another study found that when participants were asked to play a card game where they selected cards from two different decks (unbeknownst to participants, one deck was rigged to win more often), it took about 50 cards for participants to consciously realise the decks were different.
What’s interesting is their bodies knew long before their brains did. Participants were hooked up to a machine that measures electrical conductance of the skin and after choosing 10 or so cards, their palms began to sweat slightly each time they reached for a card from the losing deck.
This type of unconscious perception is not so unusual, says Pearson.
“Lots of people feel like they have a sixth sense about things – think of soldiers getting a particular feeling about a crowd or a road in Afghanistan,” he says.
“The military are interested in developing soldiers’ sense of intuition and how they can use it. Our data show that people get better at intuiting things the more they do it.”
For Pearson, developing intuition is like using a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
“If you have a gut feeling that something does not feel quite right, pay attention to that,” he says.
“There is lots of stuff going on in our brains all the time, but we are only conscious of a very small part of it. You can train yourself to become aware of those subtle cues and emotional feelings and you can start to rely on them.”
As for the seafood dish that you second-guessed?
“If your first feeling is one of doubt, leave it,” says Pearson. “Order something else.”
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