Why Experts and CEOs Can Make Intuitive Decisions (But Maybe You Should Reconsider)
I listen to a lot of podcast interviews with people I look up to and desire to learn from. Something that has always stood out to me is that many experts and successful business people attribute at least partial credit for their success to intuition. This sounds fancy. A bit magical or whimsical even. Intuition is something that’s difficult to wrap our head around, and therefore it can easily be the end of a discussion.
Really great interviewers get people to go beyond that intuition answer. They ask for the back story, the step-by-step process and such. And yet, even when they dig in deeper there seems to be a general reverence for this concept of intuition.
I take some issue with the trend to celebrate intuition because I don’t believe it really helps people. Rather, it makes it seem like certain people have an extra special gift that helps them make good decisions, and the rest of us will always be a step behind.
The way intuition is typically talked about is different than the “trust yourself and do the best you can with what you have” rhetoric which I do fully support. I decided to explore what’s really going on when people make ‘intuitive’ decisions to see what I could learn.
Intuition is not magical or whimsical, it’s pattern recognition
Kurt Matzler, Franz Bailom and Todd A. Mooradian, researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, decided to research why so many experts, inventors and successful CEOs cited intuition as a significant factor in their decision-making process.
They studied this by looking at chess players. In one experiment, they set up a chess board as it might look in the middle of a real chess game. Then, they had both master and novice chess players look at the board and then have the challenge of trying to recreate the same chess layout.
Master chess players, on average were able to successfully place 25 chess pieces back on the board. Novices, on the other hand, were only able to place on average of six pieces correctly.
This led the researchers to believe that what set the experts apart was their familiarity with the game. They were able to visualize and remember where more pieces were because of chess patterns they knew by heart.
To prove this is what gave the chess masters the upper hand, the researchers conducted a second experiment. This time, they places the chess pieces randomly about the chess board in no logical manner. In this scenario, the playing ground was leveled. Both masters and novices alike were only able to place on average six pieces correctly.
Other research estimates that professional chess players can recognize up to 50,000 chess board configurations. The crazy thing is, even the chess players themselves aren’t always aware of this.
Why intuition often feels so mysterious
One of the main reasons intuition seems to be a special ability some possess more than others is because of how quickly our brains process information. In the example of the chess players mentioned above, the players haven’t actually memorized 50,000 chess piece configurations. Instead, it’s more of a familiarity of configurations that comes from playing thousands and thousands of chess games.
Great chess players make their moves often in a matter of seconds. Similar to how the CEO of a large company, or a serial entrepreneur is able to quickly judge a big, multi-faceted decision.
The researchers at Sloan explain intuition to be a: “highly developed form of reasoning that is based on years of experience and learning, and on facts, patterns, concepts, procedures and abstractions stored in one’s head.”
To boil it down, many people credit intuition because they simply aren’t aware of all the data their brains are computing when their faced with a decision. There may be a “gut” instinct, but it’s coming from experience and knowledge more than it is from an “inner knowing” phenomenon.
In the case of experts and CEOs, they are able to rely more on their intuition because of the vast knowledge they've acquired over the years it took them to get to their current position. Like the chess players, they very well may not be aware of all their brain is processing when they make decisions. That leads them to credit intuition rather than specific patterns they've observed.
What this means for our decision making
There are certainly some areas in your life that you are more than able to make decisions out of intuition. What are you an expert on? Take confidence in your past experience and the knowledge you’ve acquired to make bold decisions in those areas.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, there is a big trend in health and wellness circles to encourage people to make decisions out of intuition. This makes a lot of sense because you’re an expert on your body.
You’ve lived in your body for however many years you’ve been alive. You likely know what foods sit well with you and those that don’t. Which types of exercise motivate you and which ones make you want to run and hide.
But I think there is danger in extrapolating this idea out to other realms of life. For example, if you should or shouldn’t leave your job, if you should make a certain financial investment or if you should or shouldn’t invest your time in a new project.
Because, let me tell you, your desire to leave your job very well may mask itself as being intuition but really it’s just a desire for more flexibility. The same thing goes for financial and time-based risks. If we believe intuition is a feeling we get, then we can misappropriate our normal feelings as ‘signs’.
How to develop better intuition
Back to the researchers at MIT. Concluding their research findings they offered six areas that executives could invest in to hone their intuition. Whether you’re an executive or not, you can apply these tactics to your own situation to help yourself grown in intuition.
Get as much experience as possible. Personally, I want to be a career author. So I’m gaining experience by writing blog posts, a book on the side while I also have a job that includes a ton of professional/technical writing. No matter how small you have to start, the experience you gain will pay you back tenfold.
You don’t need to gain all of the experience first-hand. Be open to the counsel and advice of others and it can help you overcome obstacles more quickly. Invest time and energy in developing relationships with peers, mentors and mentees that you can relate with and grow with.
Be conscious and aware of the role your emotions play in your decision making. The more awareness you have, the better you’ll be able to healthfully separate your emotions from the important data you should be considering for the decision.
Be open to both positive and negative outcomes. That is, fully accept the responsibility that comes from making big decisions and be willing to take risks. You won’t always make the ‘right’ or ‘best’ decision, but if you make it confidently and with the goal of learning something, it will be worth it in the long run.
Keep and open mind and ask questions. The more you learn, the better you will understand the situation at hand. Instead of letting a decision overwhelm you, consider it a learning opportunity and make it the point to grown in knowledge as much as possible.
Even when you feel a strong intuitive response to a decision, try to limit how much you reason with intuition. Rather, if time allows, continue to gather information and perspectives before making the decision. You don’t need to stray from your original response, but at least give yourself time to verify it’s the right choice.