The intuition blindspot: just because you like going with your gut doesn’t mean you’re good at it

By Emma Young

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Since then, plenty of research has proven him right: we’re not much good at knowing ourselves and, sadly, we’re especially bad when it comes to judging traits in ourselves that we care about the most. Now Stefan Leach and Mario Weick at the University of Kent, Canterbury, have added to this sorry picture of human delusion, reporting in Social Psychological and Personality Science that people who believe they’re intuitive are no better than anyone else at tasks that require intuition.

Leach and Weick recruited 178 students who completed the Preference for Intuition Scale (which asks respondents to indicate how much they agree or disagree with statements like “With most decisions, it makes sense to completely rely on your feelings”). Some also completed the Faith in Intuition Scale (which includes statements such as “I believe in trusting my hunches”).

Then the participants completed a task that involved copying out several non-sensical strings of between two and four letters. Unbeknown to the participants, there were complex rules that determined the ordering of these letter strings. After this, they were told that the strings all adhered to hidden grammatical rules and their next challenge was to use their “gut feelings” to decide whether new strings of letters adhered to the rules or not (in these kinds of tasks, implicit learning is thought to manifest consciously as “vague feelings” – intuitions – about what’s going on, though the individual can’t express what their new knowledge actually is).

After making their judgments, the participants answered questions designed to probe their confidence in their intuitions, how well they thought they did on the task, how much effort they put in, and the extent to which they felt they relied on intuition to decide if a sequence of letters was “correct” or not.

Leach and Weick also ran another study, involving 222 people, which used rules governing the ordering of pictures of people rather than letters. These volunteers also completed a scale exploring their belief in the importance of intuition and their self-rated intuitive abilities before the task, and they answered post-test questions about how well they thought they’d done.

The analysis of all this new data, as well as some data collected previously, showed that whether a participant considered him or herself to be intuitive or not had no bearing on their performance at judging the letter strings, or their grasp of the rules. When the participants were asked specifically about how confident they were that their particular intuitions regarding this task were accurate, a positive relationship with performance did emerge – but it was very weak.

Earlier studies have found that people who consider themselves to be more intuitive also tend to believe that their intuitions lead to good results, and are useful. So these new findings are likely to come as bad news to them.

One caveat is that this research involved participants using their intuition to make judgments based on recently acquired knowledge. As the authors themselves stress, “the findings … should not be generalised to other facets of intuition, such as the intuitive decision-making of experts.” However, they added that, “it is interesting to note….that studies on expert intuitions often arrive at similar conclusions as the present research.”

Can People Judge the Veracity of Their Intuitions?

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “The intuition blindspot: just because you like going with your gut doesn’t mean you’re good at it”

  1. When people say they trust their gut they usually mean that when they have a gut feeling they will listen to it. Here you are asking people to systematically apply an intuitive sense to things that they very likely don’t care about. This seems quite different to me.

  2. I suppose, as I think that intuition is no more and no less than the mental gathering of previous collected information that together is exact or similar to what we are facing, that it will depend very much in what kind of memory we have. and if we are diverse or normal, how we usually think, if we are associative or not. if we are open to listen to our interior voice or not. I think also that the kind of personality we have, Fight, paralysis o escape……..can make the difference, the moment of our life we are going through. Very little space for a generalization if you come to think about it.

  3. Though an interesting idea the sample is too small. Also ‘gut feeling’ is a general feeling probably emanating from the enteric nervous system – and coming from a primitive survival response. Cognition and deductive reasoning are different thought processes. Heightened function of inference from pattern recognition abilities refers to the later being of significant difference against the base line. Where as, the former is indicative of a better retention of our innate survival responses. On this point there will know doubt be cultural influences that impact the sample. It begs the question of interpretation of how we translate a latent ‘gut-responce’ into a conscious cognitive insight.

    1. …those with good intuition – as per the study – will be able to extract the sense from my typo ridden text.

  4. Intuition is too loosely defined here, in my opinion. I don’t accept that the test is based on intuition as experienced by intuitive people, who experience intuitive feelings about real situations, not engineered ones. It would be extremely difficult to measure genuine intuition because real life situations, even though they constitute empirical evidence, cannot be measured against a control group and are therefore discounted by scientists.

  5. The conclusion would be:
    1. Intuition is just wishful thinking, thus
    2. All the unconscious mind paradigm of Freud would be just a scary movie, thus
    3. All the formidable excess computing power of our brain is in vain…
    Maybe our intuition does not care about the artificial problems we feed it (like the arbitrary grammar test of the scientists in the article, or like our uninteresting desire to find-out how we can become rich, or other arbitrary motivations). Instead, our intuition might be concentrating on subjects we have no clue about (yet), this when it is not busy saving our lives, this seeming to be a serious matter 🙂

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