Most of us have a general idea of what intuition is — you might say we have an intuitive idea — but there’s never really been a clear scientific definition of the term.
A team of researchers in Australia is trying to remedy that. And their findings suggest that intuition is a real, observable thing that people can use to make more accurate decisions… at least sometimes.
“Intuition is one of the most fascinating kinds of human experience,” said Joel Pearson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales. “People have talked about it in literature going back to a thousand years or so, and they use the word every day. There are hundreds of books on it as well. But when you start looking into what it actually is, there’s not a lot of strong evidence that it actually exists.”
Pearson and his colleagues wanted to take a more rigorous look at this hard-to-pin-down phenomenon. To begin with, they agreed that there are two qualities present in any instance of intuition: It has to involve a piece of information that you’re not exactly conscious of, and it has to have an emotional element.
The unconscious part is obvious, but what about the emotional part? If you think about it, most of the time when we have hunches, there’s an emotion associated with it. You enter a room and something just doesn’t feel right (fear, anxiety); or you get a bad vibe after just a few minutes of being in a new restaurant (disgust, discomfort); or you somehow know you’re going to hit it off with your new co-worker (excitement, anticipation).
Now that Pearson and his team had a working definition for intuition, the next step was to measure it. So they did what any of us would do: They set about trying to generate flickers of intuition in the brains of a dozen or so college students.
Invisible to you, but not to your brain
The experiment, as described in the May issue of Psychological Science, involved a task in which 21 participants were shown fields of moving dots. Most of the dots were moving chaotically, in random directions, but each image included a few dots moving purposefully toward either the left or the right — a tiny bit of signal amid the noise. In each case, the participants were asked to name the direction of the motion as quickly and accurately as they could. As you might expect, it usually takes people a few moments to arrive at an answer, because they have to see enough dots moving in tandem for their brains to gather data and make a decision.
To inject emotionally charged information into the brains of the participants without them knowing it, the researchers used a modified version of binocular rivalry, in which a person is shown two different images simultaneously — one in each eye.
Here, the researchers added a twist. They showed the participants two different images at once, and while one of the images always had an emotional connotation — whether it was something positive, like flowers or puppies, or something negative, like a gun or a snake — the other image would be something bright and eye-catching but emotionally neutral, like a nonsense pattern of shapes and colors.
The person would see the emotionally charged and the emotionally neutral images at the same time, but the bright colors of the emotionally neutral image would always dominate their attention. In other words, they would only be aware of seeing the emotionally neutral image. They’d register the other one — the one that carried an emotional association; the puppy or the snake or the flowers or the gun — but only on a subconscious level.
And there was one final wrinkle: Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers had made an arbitrary rule. Every time the correct answer for the moving dots was “to the right,” the researchers would flash a negative image. Every time the answer was “to the left,” they’d flash a positive image. And in time, the participants subconsciously picked up on this association and started using it as an extra piece of data when trying to identify the direction of the moving dots.
“Even though the people never consciously see these images, it turns out that they start reporting the direction more accurately, and they are more confident about their decisions,” Pearson said. “And they never know why.”
In other words, the findings show that people are able to use information they don’t even know they have in order to make a decision.
Pearson’s definition of intuition hasn’t convinced everyone, however.
“I’m not so sure the study measures intuition,” said Dr. Michael Shadlen, a neuroscientist at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. “I’m not so sure what that even means, to be honest.”
Shadlen noted, however, that he was impressed by the experiment’s design, which allowed the researchers to evaluate different aspects of cognition at the same time. “It’s not easy to study these cognitive problems in the lab at all,” he said.
Should you trust your gut?
Intuition is… complicated. As this study suggests, it can help you make a decision by providing you with more evidence. But that’s not always guaranteed to help. After all, sometimes the evidence we take in, whether consciously or unconsciously, just so happens to be wrong.
However you define intuition, one question remains. How does a decision-making task like picking out the movement of dots, one that takes only a few moments, relate to the more common types of decisions we make in everyday life — decisions that can take minutes or hours or days?
Both Pearson and Shadlen believe that those slower decision-making processes have something in common with the kind of process, like dot-evaluation, that happens very, very quickly. There’s all kinds of information in our brains that we’re not aware of, and these pieces of information combine to help us make decisions.
Pearson and his team are now looking into individual differences in a follow-up study.
“We are looking at why some people are good at using intuition and some are bad,” he said. “We also compare our lab-based measure to more classical personality differences and questionnaires used by human resource.”
The next step after this is to see whether it’s possible to teach people to tap into their intuition.
“If someone can’t do it, can we use our paradigm to train them?” Pearson said. “Would they get better at this task after a few days of practice, and if so, can it generalize to other tasks they do outside the lab?”