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.