When Your Intuition Fails You



When your spider sense tingles, how do you know whether to trust it? 

Intuition is a wonderful thing and it can serve you well. 

It can also fail you.  The key is to know when it helps you, and when it works against you. 

It’s taken me a while to connect some dots but now I have a much better sense of when my intuition is on, and when it is off.  It comes down to whether I have relevant experience or patterns to draw from.

Intuition is Pattern Matching + Mental Simulation

I learned from Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking that thin slices of data tell us a lot. 

I also learned from Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions how experts make rapid fire decisions under fire.  They do rapid pattern matching plus mental simulation.  They satisfice, or, put it another way, they find a "good enough" fit for a pattern against a scenario. 

The key here is that they are drawing from their experience.  They’re throwing patterns at the problem to see what sticks. 

Think about doctors who have been there, done that in triage after triage, or firefighters who have seen it all before.  They can make accurate snap judgments in the blink of a eye, long before a novice can think their way through the problem.

What if intuition is simply rapid pattern matching against mental simulation?

You’re an Expert in Your Own Experience

You have your lifetime of experience to draw from.  When you meet somebody for the first time, your mind is doing rapid pattern matching.  Maybe some subtle things remind you of people from your past. 

When you’re in a situation, and it feels familiar, your intuition remembers situation like this. When it feels like somebody isn’t telling the truth, again, you intuitively recognize the patterns, faster than you can put your finger on it. 

Interestingly, in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), you learn about how eye movements tell you whether somebody is remembering information or constructing it (but don’t jump to the conclusion that somebody is untruthful based on eye patterns, since constructing a truthful answer might mean remembering plus constructing.)

Using the Force

Your intuition can serve you by picking up clues faster than you might consciously be aware of and finding patterns that help you for the situation. 

On the job, you probably have hunches all the time related to your area of expertise.  And they’re good hunches too.  Why?  You’ve filled your heads with relevant patterns.  You have a wealth of patterns and experience to draw from.

One of my managers always encouraged the team to ask, "what’s your gut say?"  This was a way to quickly check our intuition.  This was a great sanity check when we’d all be shaking our heads yes, but something inside us was telling us no.  When something doesn’t feel right, there’s usually a good reason.  When we looked long enough, we usually found the reason.  We were always thankful that we didn’t ignore the warning signs that our logic minds missed, but our intuitive minds picked up on.

When something doesn’t feel right, or you have a hunch, don’t ignore it.  Explore it.

When Not to Use the Force

I’ve learned not to always rely on the force.  Here’s an example of how I learned not to use the force to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar.

In a class exercise, we were testing the wisdom of the crowds.  I eyeballed the jar of jelly beans and made a guess.  A long time ago, I had successfully guessed the number of jelly beans in a jar, so why not now? 

Well, I was off by a long shot.  Meanwhile, the engineer next to me, was spot on (off by just a handful.)  He methodically took the specs for the jar and calculated how many jelly beans should fit.

The moral of the story is, your intuition can serve you when it’s from experience, or when you’re just not aware or paying attention to some important clues. 

Your intuition can fail you when you have no experience to draw from, or you are drawing from the wrong experience that doesn’t fit the current situation. 

So how do you improve your intuition?

Fill your head with relevant patterns and experience.

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      Photo by kevindooley.


      1. When you say experience in that last sentence, is that experience of using intuition or just experience in general or both? There is a subtle distinction there that I’d like clarified if possible.

      2. @ JB

        I would say relevant experience for where you want to apply your intuition, and experience in using intuition. The more you use your intuition, mindfully, the more nuances and distinctions you can learn about what works for you. I continuously test mine, learn, and respond.

      3. Intuition is also known as spider sense? Didn’t know that. Sixth sense, yes but not spider sense.

        For intuition to be on, it is important to trust self and stay connected within as well.

      4. Hi J.D.
        I act on my intuition all the time. I like this post alot I found it I funny that you call it spider sense. 🙂 It is because I called my the same way.
        Thanks for sharing.
        Giovanna Garcia
        Imperfect Action is better than No Action

      5. Hi J.D.,

        Okay, now you have me thinking. Does our intuition get better/stronger as we age, because we have more experiences to draw from? Or, are some just blessed with that “gut feeling” at a young age?

        And, if someone hasn’t experienced a lot of life (let’s say they were overly protected by their parents and/or partner), would they be lacking intuition?

        I follow my intuition and it’s rare it’s wrong. What burns me is when I don’t follow it and I end up with regrets.

      6. @ Avani

        It’s a reference to Spider Man. His spider sense tingles when danger is near.

        @ Giovanna

        I think spider sense makes it fun.

        @ Barbara

        I think some people might be wired more for it (for example, consider Myer’s-Briggs intuitive vs. sensing type), but I think there are two parts:
        1. Gaining the experience.
        2. Using your intuition.

        They go hand in hand, and in my experience, using intuition effectively is a skill you can develop and improve.

        In the case of overly protected, I think it would limit experience to draw from, so their intuition would be limited in more scenarios.

        I know what you mean about getting burned by ignoring the tugs. I think you have a high degree of empathy, and I think that really helps your intuition with people.

      7. Hi JD

        Interesting thoughts. I haven’t read either of those books.

        I do think that intuition can have it’s “unscientific” side. I believe that we can tap into a greater set of patterns if you like – patterns that we ourselves may not have experienced.

        Too much thought is where we get stuck and if we just let that go, we can get those first (correct) answers – whether it is by patterning or tapping into something else.

        I just think of the time when Cornel and I were travelling behind a car on the highway. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Cornel suddenly pulled back and changed lanes. It was just a “feeling” that he had. Next second the car that had been in front of us lost control and shot off straight across three lanes of traffic. (Cornel does have what I call really good intuition).

        I wonder why it is that one can guess a random number that a person thinks of – if you just let the answer “fall” out of your mouth?

        When I was studying and practicing kinesiology, it never ceased to amaze me how things about a person would just come to me if I stopped thinking. I’m not talking about things that I’ve seen in others or learnt in a classroom.

        I think patterns and simulation are excellent tools, but I think there are other less concrete and unscientific “tools” that can also be used.


      8. @ Juliet

        Are you thinking of the number 3? Just kidding 🙂

        … Actually, there is a reason why you can guess numbers or why you sometimes really do know what somebody is thinking. It’s mirror cells (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10mirr.html?_r=1). I planned to post on them in the future, since there are so many interesting day to day scenarios they apply.

        Along those lines, I think you’ll really enjoy this article on the biology of leadership, which is about how we’re all connected ( http://hbr.harvardbusiness.org/2008/09/social-intelligence-and-the-biology-of-leadership/ar/1 ), and if you want to read some “out there” stuff, check out remote viewing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remote_viewing.)

        At some point, I should probably post on some interesting skills, techniques and adventures in hypnosis, past-life regression, and Shamanic journeys. My class in Shamanism was eye-opening to say the least, and the stories from that are pretty amazing.

        As much as we know about life, there are still so many mysteries and things beyond our explanation.

      9. Hi JD .. thanks for those recommendations and the articles. The ideas and concepts look really interesting so it’ll be good to see your posts.

        Spider sense .. I hadn’t heard that .. but like it. The more we know and try to understand ‘ourselves’ more things come to the fore .. intuition, just being .. things that most of us have no concept of or knowledge to even think about.

        It’s good to learn about these new ideas .. or a higher self approach .. thanks
        Hilary Melton-Butcher
        Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

      10. An impressive display of your amazing knowledge here. I thought I knew everything(!) but it had never occurred to me that intuition could be explained, or even rebranded as experience. Of course, experience sounds logical and authoritative whereas intuition sounds a bit nutty. Maybe that’s why a few times I haven’t followed my intuition and then I’ve regretted it. Thankfully I’m a bit more experienced now and trust my intuition more these days:)

        I haven’t visited your site for a while and I can see I’ve been missing out. I’ll be stopping by a bit more often from now on. Thanks for writing.

        Keep up the good work!

      11. […] When you intuition fails you […]

      12. Hi JD,

        Like Barbara mentioned above, I have found that when I ignore my intuition, I end up in a situation that I did not want to be in at all.

        That said, I think a person can distinguish the feeling of what is actual intuition and what is a thought. So for example, if I am really centered and at peace, it is easier to access genuine intuition and be guided as to how to proceed or what to do. However, if the mind is full of all kinds of things and I have a thought…that is not an intution. So the energy of the two are different. Many times people confuse intuition with a powerful thought. Intuition, in my mind, is a feeling and not a thought.

        I think we are saying the same thing but using different words. 🙂

      13. Intuition is so mysterious, isn’t it? Sometimes it works; other times it fails miserably. I’m torn between believing whether intuition is purely a matter of the brain recognizing patters or whether there’s something a little more mystical happening, but I have definitely experienced intuition. It’s interesting to look at scientific studies of twins and the connection they have with one another (i.e. one gets hurt and the other feels the pain, from miles away). There’s something to it.

      14. […] Sources of Insight posts on using intuition. We appreciate this reminder … You have your lifetime of experience to draw from. When you meet somebody for the first time, your mind is doing rapid pattern matching. Maybe some subtle things remind you of people from your past. When you’re in a situation, and it feels familiar, your intuition remembers situation like this. When it feels like somebody isn’t telling the truth, again, you intuitively recognize the patterns, faster than you can put your finger on it. […]

      15. Wow fun post JD and I liked the more measured – studied approach to looking at intuition.
        I lead into the world with my emotions and a Medical Intuitive just figured out all 4 major meridians of my body are extremely sensitive. I think because I have Dyscalcula that these sensitivities are my guidance system? and major planning system.

        I have to be very careful not to pick up other people’s emotions and do them for them – such as my child having a tantrum and I am suddenly mirroring her loud voice – it took a great deal of time to get back to myself in threatening situations.

        I love meditation for just the simple reason that I find myself again.

        I can not tell you who will win the horse race, but I can truly make spot decisions that are correct and like Barbara I have regret only when I do not listen to the feelings.

      16. Intuition was once mystical to me; thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s Book I was enlightened to its true nature. You are right when you say that for intuition to be reliable you must fill your head with relevant patterns and experience. Great thought. 🙂

      17. @ Hilary

        I’m a big believer in knowing yourself. For one, wherever you go, there you are 🙂 Also, the more you know yourself, the better you can drive yourself (I ride a dirt bike different than a street bike.)

        @ Annabel

        As a rule of thumb, I’ve learned to trust my intuition where I have experience, and I trust other people’s intuition where they have experience. Just like using emotions as input, I use my intuition as input, and I’ll check it. Now I have a better lens for when it works and when it won’t.

        @ Nadia

        I really like your distinction between what is intuition and what is a thought.

        @ Melissa

        There definitely is something to it. You reminded me that a friend had sent me an article a while back that shed some light on the “invisible” connections over distance.

        @ Patricia

        Thank you. It sounds like you’re an intuitive empath. Empathy has an upside and a downside. It sounds like you learned your limits and how to leverage it. Skilled empathy is the way to go.

        @ Walter

        Gladwell is great at telling us stories with insight. Now, an interesting question is, “where do you want to grow your intuition?”

      18. Hi!I think pattern matching + mental simulation add up to decision making and this may or may not be our intution.Our intution is something told by our inner self . Its up to us to walk the suggested path. I have found that most of the times the intution tells us NOT to do something,not to go somewhere etc.That is, it is biased towards something negative.It asks us to play safe,take the road more travelled and so on.

      19. I never ever won a jelly bean in a jar contest, boo hoo. Am great with word games, tho.

        And I am usually right about a person’s energy, how evolved they are. I tend to veer away from a lot the ones who still have a lot of vibration work to do. Not that I’m judging them, mind you. And they do serve as teachers, but I’m just creating a better overall environment for myself to flourish in.

      20. Hi J.D.
        You have opened a whole new perspective for me regarding intuition.

        I have always believed it to be my internal sense that tells me if something is to be, and that pertains to any situation. Purchasing a car, getting involved in a relaitonship, winning a contest, trusting a friend, regardless of the circumstances, I could always count on my intuition in the past.

        It was not until very recently that “it” failed me. So naturally, I sit at the computer googling, “when your intuition fails you” in an attempt to understand how it happened, why it happened, or maybe come across a reliable source that would tell me that my gut feeling is really just gutless.

        Before, I had not tied intuition past experience. After reading your posts, I can now see the connection. A simple example, a past relationship with someone who suffered bipolar disorder allowed me to see the signs when another person with the same illness approached me. My past experience gave me the immediate sense that something was wrong.

        However,I am still unable to understand that sense of something being RIGHT when there is no past experience or pursuit. When you really feel something is intended for you, so much so that you begin planning your life accordingly.

        I will use this scenario as an example.
        I stumble across a home online and immediately my intuition tells me I belong in it, 110%. Whereas I did dream of relocating, I was not looking for a home. This home home feels right, I can see myself in it, I can even see my pictures on the wall before stepping foot into it. I live over 900 miles from the home and know nothing about the area, but every avenue still leads me to it. My gut tells me that I belong in that city, and in that home, but when it doesn’t work out that way and I am left with a huge uncertainity about what to do. My intuition has failed me.
        Any thoughts? Words of wisdom?
        Thank you much!

      21. @ Lynn — It looks like I titled the post well, since you landed here just right.

        As people, we are great pattern matchers. It’s tough to always figure out the logic, why something feels right, and often it’s not logic at all. It was years before I realized what I like about where I live … it’s like living in the forest. Logically, I’m not living in the forest, but at some level, I’m surrounded by enough mountains and trees for it to feel that way.

        I think that’s the tough part. Our intuition can tell us something emotionally that our rationale minds can’t always process.

        When I can’t make sense of my intuition, I bounce it off other folks, and usually I can find something below the surface that’s triggering it.

      22. […]  When Your Intuition Fails (sourcesofinsight.com […]

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