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The Psychology of Intuition

Deciphering the Sixth Sense

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published 5 months ago 4 min read
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The Psychology of Intuition
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Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next. — Jonas Salk

Intuition, often colloquially referred to as a “gut feeling,” plays a vital role in our decision-making processes, shaping our actions in ways that are frequently outside our conscious awareness. For years, psychology and neuroscience have grappled with defining the scope and mechanism of intuition, tracing its manifestations from cognitive shortcuts to deeply embedded survival instincts. The topic is of interest not just to psychologists but also to professionals in various domains, such as business, medicine, and law enforcement, where intuitive reasoning can sometimes trump analytical judgment (Dane & Pratt, 2007).

Cognitive Shortcuts and Heuristics

At the cognitive level, intuition can be understood as an assemblage of heuristics or mental shortcuts that facilitate rapid decision-making. Heuristics are essentially cognitive tools that help individuals quickly navigate complex environments without needing to analyze every detail. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s seminal work on the subject helps us understand how heuristics like “availability” and “representativeness” serve to provide approximations that, while not always accurate, are often “good enough” for decision-making (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These shortcuts are evolutionary remnants, fine-tuned over millennia to enable quick responses to environmental stimuli without expending significant cognitive resources.

Emotional Intelligence and Intuition

Intuition also closely intersects with emotional intelligence, particularly in its ability to read and interpret social cues effortlessly. Researchers such as Salovey and Mayer (1990) conceptualize emotional intelligence as a form of social intuition, constituting the “ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” This socially calibrated form of intuition is often indispensable in settings that require interpersonal skills, such as management or negotiation scenarios. A leader intuitively reading the mood of a room or a negotiator intuitively gauging the other party’s limits can execute decisions that are both timely and effective.

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Unconscious Processing and Neural Basis

What remains profoundly captivating about intuition is its unconscious nature. Research increasingly indicates that our brains are capable of absorbing and processing vast amounts of information outside our conscious awareness (Kihlstrom, 1987). A striking example is found in the phenomenon known as “thin-slicing,” where individuals make complex assessments based on very limited information (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992). It appears that the unconscious mind integrates diverse bits of information, accumulated over time or gleaned from the immediate environment, and synthesizes them into intuitive judgments. Neuroscientific evidence corroborates this understanding, highlighting that regions of the brain like the ventromedial prefrontal cortex play a key role in intuitive decision-making, often activating even before we consciously recognize that a decision needs to be made (Damasio, 1994).

Limitations and Biases

While the utility of intuition is evident, it is critical to recognize its limitations and susceptibility to biases. The same heuristics that often serve us well can also lead to glaring errors of judgment. Stereotyping, for instance, is a form of intuitive reasoning that can perpetuate social inequalities (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Similarly, intuitive judgments can be clouded by emotional states, with research showing that mood and emotional arousal can significantly influence the quality of intuitive decisions (Isen, 2001).

Intuition serves as a fascinating and complex cognitive phenomenon that extends far beyond the realm of “hunches” or “gut feelings.” From evolutionary heuristics to emotional intelligence and unconscious processing, intuition encompasses a broad array of mechanisms geared toward efficient decision-making. However, an uncritical reliance on intuition, without recognizing its limitations and biases, can yield detrimental outcomes. Thus, a balanced approach that synthesizes intuitive reasoning with analytical deliberation is often the most effective strategy for decision-making in complex, real-world scenarios.

References

Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2), 256–274.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam Publishing.

Dane, E., & Pratt, M. G. (2007). Exploring intuition and its role in managerial decision making. Academy of Management Review, 32(1), 33–54.

Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Isen, A. M. (2001). An influence of positive affect on decision making in complex situations: Theoretical issues with practical implications. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(2), 75–85.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (1987). The cognitive unconscious. Science, 237(4821), 1445–1452.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185–211.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases: Biases in judgments reveal some heuristics of thinking under uncertainty. science, 185(4157), 1124–1131.

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About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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  • Alex H Mittelman 5 months ago

    Very interesting! Great work!

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