Understanding the Good and Bad of Intuitive Decision Making

Understanding the Good and Bad of Intuitive Decision Making | Jennifer Spoelma

I’ve been interviewing a lot of people about their careers and asking them to share what’s gone well, and what types of challenges they’ve faced.

One of the common themes I’ve noticed in my interviews so far is the theme of false decision points in life.

Many people have told me about big decisions they felt they ‘had’ to make.

For example, “I had to take a position at work I didn’t want to do in order to get a raise,” or “I had to choose between growing my creative business and keeping it as a hobby to be available for my family.”

In hindsight, they realized that other options likely existed, but at the time, they didn’t know how to ask the right questions or create the right opportunities.

Simplifying decision options can lead to stress and pressure

I’m fascinated by this because I see the trend in myself, too.

I so easily fall into a pattern of thinking that says, “I can be happy and peaceful, or I can be professionally successful,” “I can choose to be creative, or I can work in a corporate environment,” “I can keep in touch with all my friends far away, or I can focus my attention where I am currently.”

But the thing is, none of those situations are this or that decisions.

We create false dichotomies for ourselves when we assume situations are simpler than they really are. In so doing, we limit our options. This create stress and pressure for ourselves rather than life and freedom.

Because of this, I’ve decided to start a mini-series for Feminine Foresight all about decision-making. Today is the first post in the series, and it’s about better understanding intuitive decision making.

Listen to Feminine Foresight #16 on AnchorApple Podcasts or Google Play!

What is Intuitive Decision Making?

Intuitive decision making is a topic that’s currently pretty popular.

I see it most obviously in health and wellness circles. There are movements to encourage people to eat intuitively as a way to manage their weight, or to exercise intuitively to stay healthy. The idea is, your body knows what it needs so learning to listen to it will lead you to the results you want.

I’m not super familiar with these health trends, but I do find them interesting.

What intrigues me more, is the cultural shift to celebrate intuition-based decisions.

It’s one thing to make a decision between a taco and a salad using intuition, but it’s a completely separate thing to make an employment decision based on intuition.

If you are a frequent Instagram user, then you’ve likely encountered this paradox.

On one hand, there are tons of messages encouraging intuition-based decisions. “Just go for it,” “Do what makes you happy,” “You know what’s best,” etc.

On the other hand, we have cultural wisdom that most people would agree with: taking time to think on a decision or, “to sleep on it,” is usually the best thing to do.

I believe this is something we need to be conscious and thoughtful about. Because the reality is, most of us already default to intuition when making decisions.

But our intuition isn’t always right, so we need to be mindful about how much credence we give it.

Understanding Brain Processes of Intuitive Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning decision-making researcher. He explains that there are two brain systems, System 1 and System 2, for making decisions.

System 1 is more automatic and impulsive. This is the system that's at work when people make intuitive decisions.

The other system, System 2 is more aware, analytical and considerate of facts. System 2 is more work for our brains than System 1, so we tend to default to the path of least resistance.

There are a lot of factors that go into what creates feelings of intuition and we’ll explore more in coming weeks on Feminine Foresight.

What The Cognitive Reflection Test Tells us about how our intuition works

In this post, I want to tell you about research conducted by Shane Frederick at MIT. Frederick developed what’s called the Cognitive Reflection Test. It’s a simple, three-question test that serves to judge how much people rely on their intuition to make decisions.

For example, a question on the test is: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents”

The intuitive answer to that question is “10 cents.” (That’s how I answered!)

But the correct answer is five cents. (Take some time to think about it.)

What Frederick found is that a significant number of people answered 10 cents for that question. But also, of the people who answered correctly with five cents, they found a significant number of those had first written 10 cents, but then crossed it out to answer five cents. This goes to show there was an obvious, intuitive answer (10 cents).

But it wasn’t the correct answer.

When our brain sees a problem that looks simple, it defaults to the System 1 process.

If we trust our intuition, then we’re more likely to make the decision without ever engaging the critical thinking that comes with System 2.

The Good and the Bad of Intuition-Based Decision Making

Frederick compared several other factors like IQ, self-described personality traits and SAT/ACT scores of his research participants. Along with that data, he also had participants answer questions that pertained more to ‘real life’ than the baseball question.

For example, “Would you prefer $3400 this month or $3800 next month?”

He found that the people who relied on their intuition to answer the baseball question (those who responded 10 cents) tended to choose the options that led to less money ($3400 in this example).

This shows a connection to intuition and a desire for immediate gratification. Whereas there is a trend connecting critical analysis to delayed gratification with greater impact. This is another example of how intuition can lead us down the wrong path.

Frederick’s study also found big differences between the male and female participants.

Two thirds of female participants fell into the ‘intuitive’ answer group. But it was the opposite for men. Two thirds of men fell into the ‘cognitive reflection’ group.

This might not surprise you.

There is a cultural stereotype that women are more intuitive than men, and in a way, this study affirmed that stereotype.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that women are more intuitive, but it does suggest that women trust their intuition more. Which possibly explains why they answered ‘10 cents’ and the other intuition-based answers more frequently than men.

How To Apply This Information to your decision-making

If you’re the type of person that appreciates a simple breakdown of information, I’ve got some takeaways for you.

1.) Remember that ‘intuition’ can sometimes just be initial response

You might have a gut reaction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best, or right decision.

Of course, if you’re in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, your intuitive response to ‘get out’ should be followed. And if you just need a quick decision, say, to the question of “Where should we go out to eat tonight?” By all means, go with your intuition.

But for life decisions and choices that have lasting consequences (good and bad) treat the decision as if it were more complicated that it seems and force yourself to process it analytically.

You might still arrive at your original, intuitive answer, but you can then make it with more confidence.

2.) Take time to make decisions, even if you have strong feelings

One of my college roommates gave me the advice to always wait at least three weeks before making big decisions.

At the time, I was trying to decide between taking an internship position, or taking on more hours at work. Three weeks felt like forever at that time, but that was the point.

In a three week period, you allow yourself time to go through normal emotional ebbs and flows.

You will also likely talk to people who can mentor and advise you on the decision. Essentially, you’re being nice to yourself rather than putting pressure on yourself to decide right away. It’s good to be nice to yourself. :)

My husband also has a unique strategy for giving himself time to make a decision. He’ll actually block off his calendar for ‘thinking time’ in order to really process decisions and all the factors influencing it. And let me tell ya, he makes good decisions!

Do you rely on your intuition to make decisions? Or are you more of a fact-finder? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!