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Gut feeling, hunch, sixth sense, instinct, intuition—we use a number of terms to denote the fuzzy sense when we know something without being able to explicitly state how or why. In his 2007 book, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence Of The Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer provides three characteristics of the touchy-feely thing we call intuition. While it “appears quickly in consciousness", we may not fully understand the reasons behind it.

However, the sense feels “strong enough" for us to take action. In fact, intuition seems to reside between our thinking and feeling realms, and only goes to show that our thoughts and emotions are not always easy to tease apart. When faced with umpteen decisions over the course of our lifetimes, to what extent should we depend on our hunches? Are our gut feelings wiser than our rational selves?

Research findings paint a rather complex and nuanced picture. While intuition can trump reasoning in some instances, it can also mislead us in others.

In an experiment conducted by Jonathan Schooler and Tonya Engstler-Schooler, published in the Cognitive Psychology journal in 1990, subjects were asked to view a 30-second video of a bank robbery and then engage in an unrelated task for 20 minutes. Following this, half the subjects were asked to write a verbal description of the robber based on their visual recall for 5 minutes, while the other half were given another task. All the participants were then shown “eight verbally similar" photographs; they had to identify the robber. Those who wrote down descriptions of the robber picked the right image 38% of the time. In contrast, those who did not engage in the writing exercise succeeded in picking the suspect 64% of the time. The authors explain this intriguing result by suggesting that verbalization impaired the face-recognition skills of participants because some visual memories are “difficult to put into words".

Another study found that talking about one’s choices led to less satisfying outcomes. Timothy Wilson and his colleagues conducted a study, published in the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin journal in 1993, in which two groups of women were asked to select one of two posters to take home. One group was allowed to take the poster without further questioning while the second group was asked to explain why they chose the poster. Three weeks later, both groups reported on how satisfied they were with their choice. Interestingly, those who did not have to rationalize their choice were more satisfied than the group that had to.

According to the authors, the act of reasoning about their choice makes people focus on attributes that can be verbalized easily whereas, with time, the other attributes, which cannot necessarily be explained in words, assume importance. In contrast, the group that did not have to think aloud, simply followed their hunch.

In a similar vein, a study published in the Science journal in 2006 by A.P. Dijksterhuis and colleagues suggests that when people have to make complex decisions, like what apartment or car to buy, it is better to rely on what the authors call “unconscious thought", where we sleep over an issue without necessarily giving it our conscious attention, and then make a decision.

Kelly Turner’s 2014 book, Radical Remission, is based on her interviews with over 100 people who survived cancer when the odds, according to conventional Western medicine, were stacked against them. Further, she analysed over 1,000 written records of those who experienced “radical remission". Using “qualitative research methods," she identified 75 potential factors that played a role in a patient’s recovery. When she computed the frequency of each factor, she found that nine factors repeatedly came up. Among them was intuition.

Turner provides the following suggestions for awakening or strengthening our intuitive selves. Schedule downtime to relax daily and allow the mind to daydream. Practise meditation, maintain a journal and write down your dreams the moment you wake up.

On the flip side, experts have found that relying on intuition can also trip us up. In their 2011 book, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons caution us about the limits of intuition, especially in our complex, connected world. In fact, most of us are prey to thinking errors, especially with regard to our own minds, wherein we overestimate our abilities to pay attention or remember information. Furthermore, we should watch out for common fallacies, like mistaking confidence for knowledge and succumbing to marketing ploys that tap our inherent vulnerabilities.

As the authors point out, “The key to successful decision making…is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it."

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Bengaluru and Chennai.

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