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It’s said that we make dozens (or thousands1) of decisions every day. From the relatively mundane (hmm…can I trust this food cart’s hot dogs?) to the more momentous decisions that feel like they could take us down very different paths in life (umm…which college should I go to?).

The simple decisions don’t generally keep us up at night (unless you make the wrong decision about the hot dogs), but we can easily get overwhelmed and feel lost when faced with more complex decisions like which house to buy, or what to major in as an undergrad.

So in moments like this, we’re often encouraged to “sleep on it” or “go with your gut.”

But going with what feels right can seem pretty nebulous and fluffy. And quite unscientific-y.

So is there any science behind the idea that we ought to listen to our intuition? Or is this just something people say to us when we’ve made their brain hurt, and they’re as confused as we are?

Is intuition really a thing?

Testing for the existence of intuition is tricky, but a group of researchers devised a clever way to gain more clarity into whether there is any concrete evidence of such a phenomenon.

They showed participants a cloud of tiny little dots on one half of a computer screen, where their task was to decide whether the dots seemed to be trending towards the left or towards the right.

Meanwhile, on the other half of the screen, the experimenters flashed “positive” (e.g. cute puppy) or “negative” (e.g. scary snake) pictures designed to elicit an emotional response, which provided a cue as to which direction the dots were moving in (e.g. positive = right, negative = left).

Of course, these images were displayed for just a brief moment – too quickly for the participants to consciously recognize they had even seen an image. And sometimes, the images were scrambled, so the participant would not be able to discern the image even on a subconscious level.

Even though they didn’t consciously recognize that they were being shown pictures, on some level, their bodies did pick up on what they were seeing, as the researchers found that the participants experienced a small, measurable physiological reaction to the emotional images. And in line with this, the participants indeed made faster, more accurate decisions when presented with the emotional images.

In other words, on some subconscious and intuitive level, their brains were able to utilize the information from the images to help them make better decisions about which way the dots were trending (learn a bit more about this study here).

The importance of trust

However, it seems that our intuition can only help us if we trust our so-called “emotional oracle.” A Columbia University study, for instance, found that whether it was predicting the next day’s weather, the winner of American Idol, or the movement of the stock market, those who trusted their feelings were significantly more accurate in their predictions than those who were less trusting of their feelings.

The importance of domain expertise

Even so, this is only true if we have some degree of expertise in the area we are trying to make predictions in.

A Rice University study recruited 186 students to rate the difficulty of 13 basketball shots, taken from footage of two college basketball games (where 1=easiest shot possible, and 10=hardest shot possible).

Participants watched the shot, and then were given 10 seconds to rate the difficulty.

Half of the participants (the intuition group) were told to just go with their first impression and “avoid thinking very hard about what the right answer is.”

The other participants (the analysis group), were told to ignore their first impression or gut instincts, and instead base their decision “on a very careful analysis.” To help with this, they were asked to develop a list of factors that could be used to determine the difficulty of a shot – like the distance from the basket, how many defenders were in the shooter’s vicinity, or whether the shooter was moving or not, etc.

The participants were also asked about their basketball-playing experience, to get a sense of whether they had any basketball expertise. Those who played at least 3 years of competitive high school basketball were classified as being high in expertise, relative to the other participants.

When it came to making analytical decisions about shot difficulty, expertise didn’t really matter – the low-expertise participants’ shot difficulty ratings were almost identical to the high-expertise students’ ratings (24.89 vs. 26.46, respectively).

But there was a significant difference between high and low-expertise participants when relying on intuition, as the high-expertise participants scored 30.09 and low-expertise participants 21.34. I know these numbers don’t mean much out of context, but essentially, higher scores are better, indicating that the high-expertise groups’ shot difficulty ratings were much more in line with a panel of 4 NCAA coaches’ ratings of each shot’s difficulty.

So what now?

So…to sum up, intuition really is a thing. And it could help us make better decisions in many areas of our life, so long as we trust our gut and do have some domain expertise.

But that still doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, because, well, how is present-day you supposed to know what future you will want?

Will future me be happier if I do my graduate studies at the same school I went to for college? Or would future me be happier if I go to a different school – or even abroad – instead?

Will future me be happiest if I pursue a career in voice? Or piano? Or neuroscience?

Will future me be most contented in this neighborhood or that one? With this car or that car? The s’mores pancakes or the limited-time-only Lucky Charms pancakes (spoiler alert: future you will heartily rebuke you for both).

Difficult decisions are challenging precisely because it’s awfully tough to know which choice is objectively “better.”

So I was really taken with Harvard-trained-attorney-turned-Oxford-educated-philosopher Ruth Chang’s TED talk, in which she offers a different paradigm for making difficult decisions.

I won’t ruin it for you by trying to summarize it here, but the gist is, what if we approached each decision less as an exercise in prediction and more as an act of self-definition?

Watch the talk here:

One last thought-provoking video

Learn about some of our biases and (amusing) thinking errors in this entertaining and timely talk by Harvard professor Dan Gilbert:

Why we make bad decisions @TED

Footnotes

  1. Do we really make 35,000 decisions every day?