June 16, 2024


Science It Works

How the Smartest Minds Use Intuition and Emotional Intelligence to Make Better Decisions, Backed by Science

A 33-year-old patient complained of flu-like symptoms. His doctor assessed him. Nothing stood out. But for some reason…the doctor decided to do a full workup.

Why? “As soon as [I] started to talk to him, my spider senses started to tingle,” the physician told researchers. Turns out the doctor’s intuition was right.

The patient had lung cancer.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, “Intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do. Like quickly scanning three résumés and, without thinking too hard, picking the best candidate. Like quickly scanning long checkout lines at the supermarket and deciding, without thinking too hard, which is likely to be the quickest.

Like listening to someone speak for a few minutes and deciding, without thinking too hard, whether they’re smart or just a D-K.

Granted, sometimes you’ll be wrong. 

But, depending on your level of emotional intelligence, not as often as you think.

How Intuition Works

Science supports the power of intuition. As Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann write in The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, and Happier, the basal ganglia and insula, two distinct regions of the brain, drive intuitive decisions. 

Your basal ganglia manage the stored routines and patterns that make up your experiences. Your insula takes care of body awareness, and is highly sensitive to any changes in your body. 

Even if you’re not consciously thinking about it, your unconscious brain starts working on a problem or decision right away. Then, when you try to make a conscious decision, your brain compares that decision with the one your unconscious has already made.

And here’s what happens next:

  • If your unconscious agrees with your conscious decision, your brain gives off a subtle reward response. The decision doesn’t just seem logical. It also feels good.
  • If your unconscious disagrees with your conscious decision, your insula detects other changes in your body. While the decision seems logical, it doesn’t feel good.

Why? If your brain has predicted a reward, and your body decides differently, your anterior cingulate cortex generates an electronic signal called error-related negativity. (Or, in nonscientific terms, an “Uh-oh!” response.)

That’s where intuition comes from. Make the right decision, and your body knows it. Make the wrong decision, and your body knows it. Like the doctor, you can’t explain why.

Now Layer in Some Emotional Intelligence

According to a 2020 study published in Emotion, people with lower levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to misread the signals their bodies send them.

In one case, they mistook their body’s “warning sign” for excitement and instead of proceeding cautiously took more risks. They interpreted “Uh-oh” as “Let’s go!”

Which makes sense; as my Inc. colleague Justin Bariso writes, one aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to make your emotions work for and not against you — which is really hard when you can’t properly interpret your emotions.

So is overstating your level of experience. Navy SEALs have practiced, trained, and debriefed hundreds of scenarios. They’re able to intuitively respond to new or changing conditions because their storehouse of experience is full. That’s why Sully decided to land in the Hudson River. That’s why quarterbacks like Tom Brady can read a defense and make the right throw so quickly. 

As Fabritius and Hagemann write:

Although there’s a common misconception that intuitive decisions are random and signify a lack of skill, the exact opposite is true.

Intuitive decisions are often the product of years of experience and thousands of hours of practice. They represent the most efficient use of your accumulated experience.

When Should You Trust Your Intuition?

All of which sounds good. But there’s a difference between gut feel and guessing. So how can you tell when your intuition might be on to something? 

First, consider your level of emotional intelligence. But don’t just assume — like when more than 80 percent of respondents said they were above-average drivers, even though that’s mathematically impossible — that you’re emotionally intelligent. Take a test. (Although you may not love everything you discover about yourself.)

The better your emotional intelligence, the more likely you are to accurately interpret your body’s “Uh-oh” intuitive response. (Or at the very least, pause and consider what you might be missing.)

Then ask yourself three questions Kahneman feels can help determine whether you should feel confident about a particular intuition:

1. Is this a regular, predictable environment? 

If something happens on a frequent basis, the outcomes are more likely to be predictable. Take chess. “Intuitions of master chess players when they look at the board,” Kahneman says, “are often accurate.” Or people in close relationships. “Everybody who’s been married,” he says, “could guess their [partner’s] mood by one word on the telephone.”

Or even medical professionals: Researchers have found a strong correlation between a doctor’s “gut feelings” about ICU patients at the beginning of their stay — when medical data was sparse — and the eventual course and outcome of treatment

2. Do I have extensive experience or practice?

Accurate intuition isn’t something you have; accurate intuition comes from considerable practice. 

That’s how experienced hiring managers can make solid “snap” decisions. That’s how doctors sense something isn’t quite right. That’s how you know when something sounds too good to be true. 

3. Have I gotten plenty of feedback? 

Without feedback, you can’t know whether an intuition was right or wrong — which means you can’t calibrate your intuition.

To Kahneman, that’s the difference between luck and intuition. If you got it right but can’t go back and trace what your unconscious noticed, you made a lucky guess. If you can later look back and articulate the reasons why, that means you knew…you just didn’t know, in the moment, why you knew.

All of which leads to a final point. Intuition isn’t a substitute for data. For logic. For analysis. For reasoning.

But expert intuition — the kind of intuition that comes from genuine experience — can identify moments when your analysis is shaky and your reasoning off.

Especially if you’re emotionally intelligent enough to read the signals your body sends you.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.