“Every decision that has profited me as has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking,” counselled Oprah Winfrey in the recent interview ‘Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership’.
I have always been fascinated by this counsel embedded within us. Sometimes it’s a voice; other times it can be a sensation or a feeling. It can even be physical pain or discomfort. It prods us, awakes us. It tells us that it’s time for a change; or that something isn’t right; or it is. There are many attempts to label it: intuition, instincts, gut feelings, the subconscious, a hunch, the inner voice. I’m not sure one term ever sufficiently describes this thing that voices its opinion ever so delicately one moment, and then blasts a code red alert the next.
Intuition is defined by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (who’s considered an expert on the study of intuition) as this: “I use the terms gut feeling, intuition, or hunch interchangeably, to refer to a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon.”
‘Go with your gut’ is common self-help advice, and it appears to hold the key to our search for the good life. But how do we know what our intuition is? How can we tell the difference between it and the other voices in our head or sensations in our body? Can we really trust it? I cannot do this topic full justice, but my gut is telling me to write it all the same.
According to Gerd Gigerenzer in his TedX Talk, trusting our gut appears to be useful in a world of uncertainty. It is not so clear what or where this world is, but I can imagine it’s this messy, jumbled-up and confused world we live in. Freud believed that intuition was best reserved for vital or complex matters such as choice of a profession or a mate, whereas a pros and cons list suited the more simple problems. Gigerenzer also argues that more information, more time and more computation are less conducive to good decision-making. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink certainly agrees. He says that too much information over-saturates our brains so that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees, hence hampering our good judgment.
Our intuition can also get it wrong. The fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – shot at 41 times – by NY police who instinctively thought he was a criminal and that his wallet was a gun is a tragic example. Research from Yale University last year showed that unstructured job interviews and going on a hunch when selecting a candidate is not an accurate predictor of the right person for the job. Our intuition can fail us in relationships: divorce and break-ups can signify that the one who we thought was ‘the one’ actually wasn’t. It can be argued that these decisions may not have been based on intuition, but rather on fear or conditions or beliefs that are familiar to us. How are we really to know what intuition is and what it isn’t?
Perhaps one of the ways to be attuned to our intuition is to listen to ourselves. Easier said than done, I know. Keeping a journal of our thoughts and sensations may help us to distinguish the wisdom from the paranoia. Meditation is also a good way to clean up the mind and to stay present. Sometimes, something just feels right or wrong. Pay attention to it; you don’t have to act on it just yet, especially when you feel you have insufficient information or there is no sense of urgency. Just be aware.
Plato believed that intuition must be subjected to reason. For Malcolm Gladwell, the best way to make a decision lies in the balance between conscious deliberation and instinct. Research from the careers charity 80,000 hours states that we can trust our intuition when: the environment is sufficiently predictable to make decisions; we have enough experience from making similar decisions in similar environments; and feedback on decision making is quick and accurate, enabling us to learn from it.
Fully understanding our intuition is probably one of the greatest mysteries of life. It takes trust and courage to listen to it and to act upon it. My rule of thumb is Oprah: if she goes with her gut, then I might as well too.
Gemma Rose writes at http://livingroomphilosophy.com
Follow her @livingroomphilo, and www.facebook.com/LivingRoomPhilosophy