President's Column

Intuition: The Best Kept Secret for Survival and Success

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

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 calculations.

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 know why.

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 happiness.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Conditioned emotional responses, which range from fear, aversion, suspicion, attraction, and attachment.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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 area.
  6. 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).
  7. 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 gut feeling.

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:

  1. You know what something is despite little time to see it properly.
  2. You can see the forest through the trees.
  3. You can anticipate what happens next.
  4. You always know when it’s the ideal time to strike.
  5. You know the best way to figure something out.
  6. You divine the causes of things.
  7. You’re good at detective work; you know what elements fit together.
  8. You look at a picture and know what elements don’t fit.
  9. 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 Type

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, 1976).

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:

  1. Extraverted Sensing
  2. Introverted Sensing
  3. Extraverted Intuition
  4. Introverted Intuition
  5. Extraverted Thinking
  6. Introverted Thinking
  7. Extraverted Feeling
  8. 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 ) Extraverted or Introverted, (2) Sensing or iNtuitive, (3) Thinking or Feeling, and (4) Judging or Perceiving, 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 functioning.

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 intuitive.

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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