Have you ever had a feeling that you should or shouldn’t do something? Did you follow through with it? If not, did you later regret it?
I ask, because there is a good chance that you may have done. Research shows that intuition is hard-wired into us. It’s literally part of our older, more reptilian, brain. What some researchers call our brain operating system 1. That system takes a lot faster to process and arrive at a conclusion; in fact it works so fast that we don’t even notice it.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fairly lengthy and complicated process going on. Researchers speculate that as we learn, we categorize all our knowledge in a process called chunking. This allows us to “subconsciously” recognize patterns we have seen before and to know when something is very right or very wrong. In essence, our intuition is our brain doing a super-quick sort of loads and loads of information to arrive at what is often a correct answer.
The most dramatic example of how this works occurred on a Formula One racetrack when a driver, for reasons he did not understand braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend. Formula One drivers never brake when they go around corners; they can’t afford to. Most races are won or lost by a tenth or even a hundredth of a second so when the driver braked he ensured that he was going to lose that race. But breaking, it turned out, was exactly the right thing to do. For there was a pile-up of cars ahead and had he not braked he would have died.
When he was shown the video of the race later, the driver hypothesized that the crowd, which normally would have been watching him, and cheering him was quiet, frozen and staring at something else. And so he braked. He had no time to analyze why he did so; he reacted out of what felt like sheer instinct. And yet, there was a complicated if super-fast logical process going on. He had noticed the crowd’s strange behavior, deduced there was life-threatening danger just out of his sight, and realized that only by braking could he avoid the danger and save his life and so he braked in time. The whole process took a hundredths of a second. Or less.
This process has also been replicated in laboratory experiments. For example, when subjects were playing a card game of chance for money with one rigged card deck, their bodies knew after ten cards which deck was rigged and therefore “dangerous” but it took most people an average of fifty cards to consciously begin to suspect that one of the card decks was rigged and an astonishing eighty cards before they were able to articulate it. Needless to say, the people who did best were the ones who listened to their guts.
Does that mean you should always listen to your gut? No. If you are working out a logical problem—designing a new system, calculating how much stress a beam should take, or working out how to budget your money for example, you should work with your operating system 2. That’s what it’s there for. But if you have to make a snap decision with limited information—you are driving and all of a sudden you feel you need to break, you just have a hunch you should not go to that party, or you have a feeling you should see the doctor—then you should go with your gut.