The Science of Intuition & Why Business Leaders Fail to Capitalize

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It's available now on Amazon in Kindle, print, and (soon) audiobook formats. The story below has been modified only slightly to make sense in this new context. Enjoy!

Intuition is a touchy subject in the workplace. Some people -- perhaps you and I -- readily embrace its power and practicality. Others view it as a fluffy ideal. Despite those amazing moments when, suddenly, you have clarity, many individuals in business still reject the idea that intuition can be a concrete thing. We might get excited about the idea, but they merely scoff.

Gary Klein and Gerd Gigerenzer would probably scoff back. The two research psychologists have dedicated their lives to understanding this erstwhile squishy phenomenon. 

Klein is famous for his pioneering work in the field of naturalistic decision making. His ideas seem to align with Malcolm Gladwell’s popularized notion of “rapid cognition” from his bestseller Blink, as Klein refers to intuition as instant subconscious reasoning. In psychology, subconscious reasoning is known as “priming”—past experiences that we hardly noticed which then affect how we make decisions later. We rarely recognize when this happens to us. This is essentially pattern matching, done quickly and subconsciously. You can’t say why you know something. You just know.

According to Klein, our ability to recognize patterns in a new situation based on past experiences creates a feeling of instant clarity. In his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, he argues that coincidences inform intuition—literally, things that “coincide.” Intuition helps you identify the details of one situation that coincide with the details of another.

“Coincidences change our understanding, change what we notice, change what excites us, and set us on the path to making a discovery,” Klein writes. “Coincidences can also change our actions. One way they do this is by giving us an idea of what we need to alter to break a pattern we don’t like.”

By the standard definition, “coincidences” are hard to control, and that interpretation of intuition is not overly useful if we’re trying to proactively improve our decision-making skills. If we link intuition and coincidences, it still feels safer, more predictable, and more tangible to rely on a best practice. At first glance, coincidences don’t feel much more helpful than the Muse. However, the ability to identify coincidences requires a subtle mental shift—one that we’d be wise to understand since this shift is quite practical indeed. Namely, we have to be open to the details of the world around us. If we aren’t, we won’t recognize patterns or spot those coincidences in the first place. According to Klein, it’s the lack of openness that plagues so many decisions made in the workplace.

“I still observe executives exhibiting the same lack of courage or knowledge that undercut previous waves of innovation,” he writes. “They declare that they want more innovation but then ask, ‘Who else is doing it?’ They claim to seek new ideas but shoot down every one brought to them.”

Just think about the last time somebody shot down your ideas. There’s an underlying, if unspoken, set of emotions that leads to the rejection. Fear. Stress. Stubbornness. Laziness. Leaders who are all too quick to shoot down unconventional ideas are implicitly scoffing at the notion that we heard about from Charlie Munger -- that it's better to be "vaguely right," and to embrace that you constantly need to update your knowledge of the world to make better decisions as the context changes. Instead, those fearful, stressed, stubborn, or lazy people around us at work prefer to be more precise, but it's a false sense of precision. They want “the” answer in some absolute sense, but that’s about as practical as invoking the mythical Muse to give you creative powers. In the end, they merely wind up being precisely wrong more often than not.

Klein quotes Mark Twain, underscoring this point: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

Honing Your Intuition as a Practical, Decision-Making Skill

Unlike Gladwell, and other pop-science authors, Klein moves us one step closer to grasping our intuition as a tangible tool. To use our “most sacred gift” (Einstein's words), we need to remain more open and sensitive to the specific details of each situation we encounter. (This is part of the reason the stereotypical corporate grindstone removes our intuition as a skill: employees become numb to their environments.)

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary—a brand whose hilarious story we’ll explore later—intuition is defined as “a quick and ready insight.” No surprises there, as this aligns with every interpretation we’ve heard thus far. But let’s look beyond the modern definition to the root of the word itself. The word “intuition” comes from the Latin verb intueri which means “to consider,” or from the late middle English translation, intuit, which means “to contemplate.” Intuition is not some mythical Muse. It’s not merely a backstage process. It’s something we can consciously control. As the root of the word suggests, it’s our ability to consider or contemplate the world around us. In a workplace flooded with conventional thinking, intuition is the process of thinking for yourself.

Not only is this a very practical thing to do at work, but it’s something that is in no way reserved for a gifted few. We can all think critically and deeply to consider the world around us (intueri)We can all improve how we contemplate our context (intuit)It’s the remedy to clinging to best practices. It’s the sledgehammer to break the wheel. If best practices lead to average work, then average work is merely the failure to contemplate your environment deeply enough.

The difference between many of us and the exceptional individuals we’ve met so far is their refusal to lapse into autopilot. They remain open to and aware of the details of the world around them. They never stop considering and contemplating things.

Klein's German contemporary Gerd Gigerenzer frames intuition in even more practical terms than his peer. Gigerenzer's work suggests that intuition is our ability to identify the right pathway toward a conclusion, rather than instantly arrive at the conclusion itself. Using our intuition, we’re able to quickly identify which information is useful and which is irrelevant—a profoundly useful skill in the era of Advice Overload, in that we feel a sense of clarity about our environment prior to drawing any conclusions.

As Gigerenzer said in an interview about his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, “Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.”

The social psychologist is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He’s primarily known by his peers for his research into the nature of intuitive thinking. His work suggests that we can use intuition to draw conclusions about various inputs, which then makes the right decision seem more obvious. Honing and trusting our intuition thus improves our decision-making process by informing all our decisions with the most relevant possible information. Rather than rely on what works in general, we can quickly identify the information that is most relevant to us. This is the exact skill we need to supplement or outright replace our reliance on best practices.

Think of it like going to the eye doctor and being shown different lenses. “Number one or number two? Number three or number four?” Your intuition helps you quickly hold up a possibility—an idea, an answer, a bit of advice—and quickly see which makes sense for you. Which helps you see things most clearly? Which fits best in your unique situation? Intuition is like an instant clarity generator after all.

Still, it can be hard to trust what we see, even if we see it clearly. We’ve suffered from learned helplessness for so long and have spent so much time believing that the best answers in our careers were hidden away in the minds of experts. This can make it difficult to actually implement what we see into our work. However, Gigerenzer’s research suggests we should trust ourselves more, or as he says, it’s often best to “go with what you know.” In one of his most famous studies, he explored “the recognition heuristic.”

In the study, Gigerenzer examined the decision-making process of people who invest in the stock market. He observed that amateur investors typically pick companies they’ve heard about before—the recognition heuristic at work. But is that effective? To figure that out, Gigerenzer’s team surveyed 360 people in Chicago and Munich. They asked these people to create a list of the best-known public companies in both areas. Then the research team created theoretical investment portfolios based on those responses. After six months of tracking their fake investment portfolio, the team found that their theoretical investments gained more value than the Dow and DAX markets, as well as some big-name mutual funds.

Gigerenzer began this exercise in the 1990s, and since then, his team has shown that companies selected at random by uninformed or “ordinary” investors consistently outperformed the predictions of well-informed, professional investors. Ignorance might be bliss, but ignorance of best practices is money.

As with many scientific studies, especially those focused on concepts like intuition, Gigerenzer’s work doesn’t definitely prove anything one way or another. However, it suggests something powerful: focusing on what we know and what we find for ourselves might lead to better ideas and answers.

To paraphrase Gigerenzer, it’s impossible to know all of the variables prior to making a decision, and not all the information from your past is relevant to your future. As a result, I think best practices become incredibly dangerous because of how precise and prescriptive they are. They seem so specific, but in reality, they lack the context that only you can provide. However, when we begin to deploy our intuition, we start considering the variables that best practices miss. We can’t know them all, but we can come a lot closer than industry-wide generalities.

If every decision we make is “close enough,” then our intuition ensures we’re “as close as possible.” In trying to escape the messiness of so many unknown variables in our work, we trust best practices. But Gigerenzer sees this as a mistake. He says that a well-honed intuition is our inherent ability to focus on the most important information—not the most commonly used or the trendiest—in order to make better decisions. In the end, that’s the power of intuition. It’s an instant clarity generator, and clarity comes from having the most relevant information possible. Not for others. Not in general. Not on average. For us.

That’s how we can break this wheel: by asking the right questions.

So what questions can you ask? There are two different types: trigger questions and confirmation questions. What should you question? Your context. As we’ll explore in the coming chapters, your context is the combination of three different aspects of your work. To begin honing your intuition, you can ask one trigger question and one confirmation question about each aspect.

Together, these six questions provide a process we can use to escape the endless cycle of best practices. Because screw the Muse and damn the best practices. By asking the right questions, we can unlock the power of our own intuition. We can make this skill concrete, accessible, and practical. We can escape the endless cycle of average work. Intuition is the sledgehammer we can use to break the wheel. Next, let’s learn how to forge this powerful tool.


Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is. So how does that work? Break the Wheel is a book about making the best possible decisions … regardless of the best practice. In Chapter 3, we go on a journey through history, from ancient Greek poets to the rise of the internet, to see how intuition has been twisted and misinterpreted. Then, we build it back up from first principles to create a process for honing this powerful skill.

Get your copy now >>

Posted on October 8, 2018 .