After a long interview process, you’ve been offered a job, but can’t shake the feeling it’s the wrong move. Or your brother wants you to join him in buying a franchise, and everything in you is screaming: “Yes, the world needs more juice bars!” Chances are good that’s your intuition speaking. And chances are even better that it’s not telling you the whole truth.
Researchers, who have been trying to decode intuition for decades, have proven that we do have an inner sixth sense that speaks to us, sometimes with uncanny reliability. Experiments have shown that when people are given a “lucky” deck of cards stacked with more winning hands, they can sense it even before many cards have been revealed. (Researchers monitor when their palms start to sweat with excitement.)
But experts like Princeton University’s Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, have made a life’s work of proving that fast decisions that feel intuitive are sometimes our sloppiest, and right only about half the time. His studies, covering everything from investing choices to health assessments, have shown that when trying to make intuitive decisions, people tend to be overly optimistic and confident.
Take Jane Robinson, who admits she has been both burned and blessed by following her gut. Now 57, she worked in the Michigan prison system for 22 years, climbing from guard to parole officer. But as her children left home and her frustration with the endless parade of offenders grew, she threw herself into her passion for painting. As she connected more with artists, the idea of communities that encourage creativity lit her fire. So when she was offered the directorship of a rehabbed factory where artists would live, paint and sell their work, intuition told her it was meant to be. “Even though I was only a few years away from getting a pension, I dove in, recruiting artists for 60 apartments and 20 studio spaces,” she says.
The next two years were, frankly, a bit of a train wreck. “I put in 60-hour weeks, working with construction crews and the developer, tap dancing all over the state,” she says. Funding fell through. The mission changed. And even the artists couldn’t agree on a direction. “Within months, my hair—even my eyebrows and eyelashes—started falling out,” she recalls. When the effort collapsed, “I was feeling so foolish and dumb and beaten up, especially having walked away from all that job security.”
So was Robinson wrong to take the leap? Maybe. It’s important to practice “predictive humility,” says psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., author of The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are. “Be careful not to over-interpret what feels like intuition. Some of our predictions and hunches can be accurate, but don't assume they are.”
As obvious as it sounds, he says, you can increase your intuitive skills just by being more mindful. “People who practice being in the moment—not thinking about past experiences, or the future—can help perceive their gut instincts more naturally,” says Hertenstein, who teaches at DePauw University.
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Our brains, he says, are in some ways natural prediction machines, able to pick up all kinds of information about people and situations, which can help us make better decisions. For example, based on fleeting and superficial cues, we can accurately predict traits like sexual orientation, personality, deception, intelligence and aggression. In job interviews, “it’s possible to pick up on a candidate’s intelligence quickly,” he says. “Brighter people tend to look directly at you when they are speaking, to talk quickly but not too quickly, loudly but not too loudly.”
When faced with a decision, there’s no need to rely on an either/or method. A new study from a Norwegian business school analyzed the way people responded to crises, looking at intuitive decision makers (those who tended to act based on gut feel and their cumulative past experiences); analytical decision makers (who used a more systematic, thorough style), and those who used a combination. The best decisions came from people who blended the two styles. Make a game of it: If you had to make a choice this very instant, on pure gut feeling, what would it be? If you had a task force at your disposal to help research it, and plenty of time, what would you want to learn before you decided?
Taking the long view helps, too. While Robinson admits following her heart initially yielded rotten results, it’s paid off in the long run. “So many positives came out of that experience, even if it at first looked dire. It led me to decide to concentrate on my own painting, and once I did that, I began selling more of my own work. During those rough two years, I learned how to write grants, be a community advocate, and fund-raise for nonprofits. I’m using all those skills today, and I’m so glad I made the change.”
Her hair has even grown back, chic white locks replacing her brunette curls. “I’m happier than ever at work, and it all served to make me an expert in the business of creativity.”