The best kept secret for survival and success
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Often intuition is the deciding factor between
failure and success. Even though we don’t know precisely what
intuition is, at the gut level we all know that it is there and
that it can be summoned to our aid whenever we feel overwhelmed.
We have all experienced situations where we
have to make a major decision in the absence of sufficient information.
We still need to act in spite of uncertainty and ambiguity, but
a wrong turn could have tragic consequences.
To whom would you turn when you are facing a
crisis all alone? Imagine that you are a Marine serving in Iraq.
Often you only have a split second to make a snap decision: if you
are trigger-happy, you may kill a civilian; if you hesitate, you
may get killed. How do you react to such situations? What kind of
recourse do you have other than letting your intuition take over?
Even in the normal course of daily living, intuition
can make a difference. Here is a case in point. Sometimes, we think
that we know certain individuals well because we have worked closely
with them for many years, yet we fail to detect their hidden agendas
until they stab us at the back. Sometimes, we walk into a friendly
situation and feel welcomed without realizing that we have just
walked into a trap with both eyes wide open. How we wish that we
have the nose to sniff off hidden dangers!
Intuition can spare us countless headaches.
For example, no one can predict the rippling effects of seemingly
inconsequential email messages or offhanded remarks. The recipient
may parse each statement and read too much into innocent words.
Intuition can serve as an antenna alerting us to potential troubles.
The importance of intuition
The importance of intuition has been recognized
down through the ages. To Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendental
philosopher, "the primary wisdom is intuition", because
it represents a more direct and immediate way of knowing.
Albert Einstein said “The only real valuable
thing is intuition.” As he gazed into the starry sky and wondered
about the meaning of time in the cosmos, he might have had a flash
of insight that led to the development of the theory of relativity.
John Nesbitt, the famous cognitive psychologist
from the University of Michigan, declared that “Intuition
becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely
because there is so much data.” Given the increasing demand
on our limited supply of mental energy, intuition represents a much
needed form of cognitive economy.
From both evolutionary and historical perspectives,
Dan Cappon, (1993) acknowledged that intuition has always been critical
to human survival and success. It is a survival skill evolved from
primitive survival instincts.
Frances Vaughan (1979) concluded that many “major
human achievements involve intuitive leaps of imagination. It is
the intuitive, holistic, pattern-perception faculties associated
with the right hemisphere of the brain that break through existing
formulations of truth and expand the body of knowledge. The stabilization
of intuitive insights, and their usefulness to humanity, are subsequently
determined by careful, logical examination and validation, but the
original vision or insight is intuitive” (p.153).
Examples of highly intuitive people
Some people seem to possess an abundance of
intuition. The intuitives are generally successful in whatever they
do, because they can see things more clearly and find the best solutions
to problems more quickly than others.
Warren Buffet remains the market king, because
he has a better “market sense” than other traders. He
has the uncanny ability knowing when to buy and when to sell. More
importantly, he is able to pick stocks which become clear winners
over the long haul.
Gary Kasparov is acknowledged as the greatest
chess player because he has a better “chess sense” than
other grand masters. He can anticipate his competitor’s moves,
calculate all possible positions, and decide on the best move, all
in a couple seconds. His mind must be working 100 times faster than
most chess players.
Wayne Gretzky is undeniably the greatest hockey
player who has ever lived. His “hockey sense” is legendary.
When he is on the ice, he seems to know exactly where the puck will
be in the next few seconds and which is the best way to get the
puck into the net. While keeping his eye on the puck, he simultaneously
commands a bird’s eye view of the entire dynamic fluid situation
and quickly calculates the best move.
Then, there was the inimitable Richard Feynman,
a Nobel laureate in Physics. He was able to discover important truths
in theoretical physics simply by observing a water sprinkler or
a man making pizza. He was also known for his ability to use short-cuts
to arrive at the same mathematical answers as time-consuming laborious
Clearly, all these individuals have a very high
level of intelligence and have a huge storage of expert knowledge
and experience tucked away somewhere in their brains. But they also
seem to be blessed with something special – something that
comes so easily and naturally that enables them to grasp the essence
of complicated issues quickly and come up with the right answer.
Is this special ability genius or intuition?
Even among the less luminous mortals, we have
met highly intuitive individuals in every walk of life. Several
years ago, a young man working in a garage just took a quick look
under the hood of my car and listened to the engine for a few seconds
and came up with a $5.00 solution! We were so impressed with this
young lad in a white shirt, because we had consulted several auto
mechanics and spent lots of money without fixing the problem.
Regardless of their occupation, the intuitive
people stand out because of their keen observations and quick minds.
They are open to all possibilities and choose the best solutions.
They readily detect associations and solutions, which are hidden
from others. While others are arguing over trivial or irrelevant
issues and seem to be going in circles, they always know how to
cut through the thickets and zero in the crux of the matter.
People rich in intuition seem fully attuned
with their surroundings and have a perfect sense of timing. In whatever
they do, they have just the right touch and mete out just the right
measures. Even in highly stressful situations, they manage to hit
all the right notes without skipping a beat. They are able to form
sound judgments and perform optimal interventions instantly.
Wouldn’t you love to have such people
in your organization? But how can we identify people gifted in intuition?
Can we help cultivate it in people? More importantly, what is this
magical and mystical thing called intuition?
What is intuition?
We all have some vague idea of what intuition
is. Generally, it refers to some kind of inner conviction, gut feeling
or hunch that something is so without the evidence or knowledge.
For example, when you are introduced to someone for the first time,
your personal radar immediately picks up some negative vibrations.
His presence makes you feel uncomfortable or edgy, but you don’t
Is your hunch reliable and true? Are you being
influenced by personal biases or past experiences? Does it simply
reflect your mental state of the moment? What is intuition? What
do we know about it?
Intuition has many names – the sixth sense,
hunch, gut feeling, a still small voice, an inner light, following
your heart, instinct, self-evident knowledge, immediate and direct
knowledge, lateral thinking, holistic thinking, a stroke of genius,
epiphany, inspiration, revelation, a flash of insight, good common
sense, business acumen, ESP, bodily wisdom, psychic intuition, medical
intuition, universal wisdom, heuristic judgments, etc.
We will never get a handle on this slippery
phenomenon without realizing that there are different types of intuition
and a wide spectrum of approaches to the nature of intuition. One
end of the spectrum represents various mystical approaches; the
other end focuses on cognitive science and information processing.
The new-age types of mystics (e.g. Myss, 2003;
Thibodeau, 2005) believe that intuition is the greatest innate power
residing in every person. If we simply learn to listen to our intuition,
we will experience oneness with the universe and find peace and
The cognitive scientists (e.g., Hogarth, 2001;
Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Myers, 2002) believe that
we can reduce intuition to a set of perceptual-cognitive processes,
heristics and skills. Some even have developed a computing algorithm
to simulate intuition (Thomas, 1997, 2005).
We need to go beyond these two approaches in
order to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of intuition.
The different types of intuition
The following list is by no means comprehensive,
but it represents the different phenomena that have been associated
with intuition. Each type may involve different mechanisms and requires
a different research method.
- Primitive instincts
of self-preservation, such as the flight-or-fight syndrome, avoidance
responses, pleasure-seeking and instinctive responses to reduce
primary needs, such as food, water and safety.
- Conditioned emotional responses,
which range from fear, aversion, suspicion, attraction, and attachment.
- Bodily intuition
includes messages about bodily needs and conditions. Medical intuitives
such as Schulz and Northrup (1999) emphasize the need to use intuition
to decode these somatic messages in order to maintain and enhance
our health and well-being.
- Mystical intuition
encompasses a wide variety of subjective experiences, such as
spiritual guidance, inner light, psychic intuition, fortune telling,
prophetic insight, detecting energy fields, and ESP. Is this related
to spiritual intelligence?
- Interpersonal intuition
refers to the ability to pick up clues about relationships. It
also includes the capacity for empathy and character judgment.
It is clearly related to emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995).
The proverbial women’s intuition is mainly confined to this
- Practical intuition
– in solving everyday problems, the capacity of anticipating
the problem and finding the best solution, quickly and effortlessly.
This type of intuition may be related to practical intelligence
(Sternberg, 1997) and fluid intelligence (Cattell, 1987).
- Expertise intuition
is domain-specific and it is closely related to expert knowledge
and critical insight. This ability of “thinking without
thinking” (Gladwell, 2005) cannot be easily disentangled
from special talents in any given field.
A working definition of intuition
What can we learn from the above seven types
of intuition? Clearly, almost all of them involve some kind of fast-track,
automatic process, but the last four types of intuition may also
involve some form of intelligence and interact with the conscious
process of reasoning.
Most researchers emphasize the unconscious
nature of intuition. For example, David Myers (2002) considers intuition
as some kind of direct knowledge or immediate insight like ESP.
Hogarth (2001) concluded that: “A case can be made that any
and all information processing that is carried out automatically
or without conscious awareness can be considered intuitive”(p.138).
Malcolm Gladwell (2005) describes the phenomenon
of “blink” – the ability to make a snap judgment
based one decisive glance. With expert knowledge and a trained eye
to focus on relevant fact, an experienced doctor can tell what ails
his patient by just taking one look. Similarly, an experienced antique
dealer can judge whether an artifact is genuine or fake simply by
taking one look. Such intuitive judgments are attributed to “adaptive
unconscious”. This phenomenon of thinking without thinking
seems to straddle between conscious reasoning and the unconscious
I have the feeling that we may impede the progress
towards understanding intuition by focusing too much on the unconscious
elements instead of the broader phenomenon of levels of consciousness.
It may be more productive to conceptualize different types of intuition
which entail different levels of unconsciousness and different underlying
mechanisms. Neuroscience may hold the key to unlocking the secrets
of various types of intuition.
Most hunches do not operate in a vacuum. What
appears to be an unconscious automatic intuitive process may be
schema-driven. In other words, the distilled and generalized knowledge
of what works in what situation
may be tucked away somewhere in the brain and can be activated automatically
by certain situational clues; such schemas are being updated constantly
as a result of exposure to new experiences and knowledge.
My own hunch is that the most helpful types
of intuition may appear to be automatic and unconscious only because
they are the results of innate abilities plus a great deal of learning
and practice. Unconscious aspects of intuition often interact with
the conscious functions of the neocortex, resulting in sophisticated
intuition (Hogarth, 2001). Therefore,
I propose the following working definition of intuition:
Intuition is a collection of interrelated abilities
or skills, which can be executed automatically and seemingly unconsciously.
It involves the ability to see
deeply, clearly, and holistically. It is capable
of seeing the best solution
to a problem before finding it. It also includes the ability to
grasp immediately the significance
and essence of the situation and make instant decisions.
It is mostly based on deeply ingrained propensities and heuristics,
but it may also reflect a well-informed mind that is agile, fluid
and open to all possibilities.
Measurement of intuition
Daniel Cappon (1993) came to a similar view
of intuition. He studied the lives and writings of prominent scientists
and historical figures. He also asked his population of patients
to rate themselves on intuition. Finally, he identified a cluster
of 20 intuitive skills, as exemplified by the following:
- You know what something is despite little
time to see it properly.
- You can see the forest through the trees.
- You can anticipate what happens next.
- You always know when it's the ideal time
- You know the best way to figure something
- You divine the causes of things.
- You're good at detective work; you know
what elements fit together.
- You look at a picture and know what elements
- You see the meaning of symbols.
He built the Intuition Quotient Test, or IQ2,
around these 20 intuitive skills. He flashed a set of visual images
of various aspects of human experience on a screen at a steady pace
for about seven seconds, and asked the universal questions of who,
what, which, how, when, and why.
For example, to test the skill of anticipation,
individuals were shown an image of runners competing in a dash and
were asked, "Who'll win this race?" To test the skill
of hindsight, or knowing why, the subjects were show a picture and
asked: "What are these people doing here?"
I think that this kind of visual test needs
to be complemented by verbal test, which measure people’s
intuitive ability to resolve everyday problems and make sound judgments
instantly. Another approach is to develop separate tests for the
different types of intuition. Once we have valid and reliable tests
of intuition, then we can measure individual differences in intuition.
Intuition as a personality
At this point, it is important to keep in mind
that the question of how intuitive
you are is different from whether
you are the intuitive type. The former question
is interested in your Intuition Quotient, while the latter refers
to the Myers-Briggs’ personality indicator (Briggs & Myers,
Carl Jung (1926) first developed the theory
that all individuals belong to a certain psychological type, based
on their mental functions and attitudes. He identified four basic
mental functions: thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuition and
two attitudes: introversion and extraversion. Thus Jung identified
the following eight personality types:
- Extraverted Sensing
- Introverted Sensing
- Extraverted Intuition
- Introverted Intuition
- Extraverted Thinking
- Introverted Thinking
- Extraverted Feeling
- Introverted Feeling
Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers expanded
on Jung’s pioneer work by adding another primary category:
Judging or Perceiving. Thus, an individual is either primarily (1
and (4) Judging
resulting in 16 personality types.
Within this theoretical framework, individuals
either primarily depend on their five senses (Sensing) for information
or rely on their intuition (iNtuitive) to look for what cannot be
directly observed, such as implications or principles.
How is the iNtuitive
personality type related to the intuitive ability? This is an interesting
empirical question. My hunch is there may not be a strong relationship
because those who prefer the iNuitive approach do not necessarily
have the capacity for expertise intuition or interpersonal intuition.
Furthermore, regardless of our natural preferences, we all can learn
to cultivate our intuition.
Given my ability-based definition of intuition,
I think that both general intelligence and special intelligence
are more closely related to intuition than personality type. My
educated guess is that intelligence sets the upper limit for one’s
capacity for intuition. Without the necessary intelligence and knowledge,
no amount of training can result in a very high level of intuitive
How to cultivate intuition?
There are many self-help books on how to improve
ourselves and enrich our lives by cultivating intuition (Carolyn
Myss, 2003; Schulz & Northrup, 1999; Thibodeau, 2005). For example,
Lauren Thibodeau (2005) suggested that we listen to our body's signals
and learn to pick up subtle clues from our immediate environment.
By focusing fully on the here and now, we can become keenly attuned
with what is going on.
An increasing number of books and papers have
been published on how to cultivate intuition in the business world.
Salls (2005) emphasize the need to slow down in order to listen
to our own intuition. We also need to develop our symbolic ability
in order to detect the deeper meaning or symbolism in events. We
need to be open to possibilities and don’t just insist on
analytical thinking as the only way to solve problems and make good
decision, because intuition can provide creative answers which reasoning
can not conceive.
Salls makes an important point by reminding
us that we need to let go our ego and let go our attempts to be
in charge/controlling everything around us. Egotistic thinking,
blind ambitions, and selfish biases are all detrimental to intuitive
functioning. Our obsession with pride and power can really prevent
our intuition from flourishing.
Just a few days ago, I received an email from
a total stranger. I frequently receive emails from my readers, but
this one happens to be very relevant to our discussion of intuition
in business. Here is part of what he wrote:
“I’m not certain as to why
I felt compelled to contact you. I do know that I’m ready
to do what I was meant to with this lifetime. At this point all
I have to go on, or follow, are my passions; my love of business
and spirituality. Sometimes all we have is some faith and a feeling.
For me I feel as though I’m done with ego and am ready to
do something with a higher purpose.”
I feel that this person has discovered something
important. Only by letting go his ego, he is able to do something
meaningful with his business and his life. He is free to follow
his intuition only after relinquishing control.
Hogarth (2001) offers many sound advices based
on scientific research. Here are just a few notable points. He emphasizes
the value of using the narrative mode to make connections, which
cannot be detected by more logical modes of thinking. We need to
give free rein to our imagination and see where it leads us.
The recurrent theme is that the quality of intuition
depends on positive experience and helpful feedback. This point
is especially important for domain-specific expert intuition. In
addition to learning automatically from appropriate and good experiences,
we also need to learn skills based on scientific method. We need
to develop skills in observation,
speculation, testing, and generalization to the
point where the scientific way of learning becomes automatic and
Finally, we need to be reflective. We need
to develop circuit breakers to question basic assumptions, generate
alternative understandings, and seek evidence to test out our intuitive
beliefs. David Myers (2002) emphasizes the same point so that we
will not be misled by bad, self-serving intuitions.
Intuition is the best kept secret for survival
and success. Almost everyone believes in intuition, but for most
people, it is either taken for granted or shrouded in myth. Very
few know what it is and how to optimize it.
David Myers (2002) points out both the power
and perils of intuition, because some intuitive beliefs can be counterproductive
and misleading. Therefore, we need to check our intuitive judgment
with rational thinking and empirical evidence.
From my perspective, it is perhaps more important
to keep in check our emotional impulses, which tend to cloud our
thinking and lead to self-destructive action. French soccer captain
Zidane’s head-butt against Italian Materazzi in last Sunday’s
World Cup final is a case in point. Indisputably one of the world’s
best soccer players with magic skills and intuitions, Zidane was
awarded the Golden Ball as the World Cup's top player. Yet, in a
fit of anger and frustration, he has tarnished his reputation and
might have cost France the World Cup after he was red-carded and
ejected at a critical point of the game.
Whether in the battle field or sports arena,
when the pressure reaches a breaking point, even the best of us
can snap. How do we keep our basic instincts in check and rely on
intuition in highly stressful situations?
I propose a two-pronged approach. On the one
hand we need to guard against primitive instincts and conditioned
emotional responses, to ensure that we don’t act foolishly.
On the other hand, we need to develop various intuitive skills that
enable us to see clearly and form sound judgments instantly.
The key to cultivating and executing intuitive
skills is to remain centered and focused so that we don’t
let emotional reactions and destructive impulses overwhelm our judgment.
Prayer, mindful meditation, and other forms of spiritual exercises
can help develop self-control in times of stress.
Another helpful strategy is to develop a double-vision.
We need to maintain a laser-sharp focus on the core issue and relevant
facts, but at the same time look at the big picture and remain open
to all possibilities. When concentration is wedded to imagination,
it will give birth to good intuition.
These two strategies only prepare the ground
for intuition to sprout; it takes a great deal of learning and practice
before intuitive skills become our second nature. Just watch the
performance of a champion gymnast or concert pianist! With lots
of practice, deliberate and conscious reasoning may eventually become
automatic and unconscious intuition (Kahnemann, 2003). How these
two cognitive systems interact and support each other pose a real
challenge to researchers.
I want to end this essay with a word of warning.
In view of the perils of intuition (Myers, 2002), we always need
to reflect and monitor to make sure that our unconscious impulses
and snap judgments service the conscious self. Intuition can be
a powerful tool for survival and success, only when it is properly
cultivated and harnessed.
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