In the age of big data, relying on intuition—what others call gut, instinct, a sixth sense or a hunch—can seem like a cop-out or an inferior system.
But according to a survey of top executives, the majority of leaders leverage feelings and experience when making handling crises. And despite popular belief, intuition isn’t a woo-woo concept exclusively reserved for the touchy-feely self-help world. There’s actually a neurological basis for it.
When we understand the science of intuition and how “hunches” can pay off, we can more easily determine when it’s best to go with our gut and when it’s best to rely on data.
We’re wired to see patterns
The human mind is wired to see patterns. Not only does the brain process information as it comes in, it also stores insights from all your past experiences. Your intuition has been developing and expanding for as long as you’ve been alive. Every interaction, happy or sad, is cataloged in your memory. Intuition draws from that deep memory well to inform your decisions going forward.
In other words, intuitive decisions are based on data, in a way. When we subconsciously spot patterns, the body starts firing neurochemicals in both the brain and gut. These “somatic markers” are what give us that instant sense that something is right … or that it’s off. Not only are these automatic processes faster than rational thought, but your intuition draws from decades of diverse qualitative experience (sights, sounds, interactions, etc.) – a wholly human feature that big data alone could never accomplish. It’s also faster than rational thought, which means intuition is a necessary skill that can help decision-making when time is short and traditional analytics may not be available.
Many researchers, including machine learning experts and data scientists, are embracing the role hunches play in breakthrough thinking. Intuition is now considered simply another kind of data—one that’s no less valuable than traditional analytics. After all, algorithms are created by people and therefore subject to human error. And as innovation expert Bernadette Jiwa points out, you can’t make a decision without emotion. Nor is the data always an accurate indicator of behavior, as the most recent US presidential election showed. “The data said one thing, and actually the [real] story is right under our noses, and we’re ignoring it,” Jiwa said in an interview with Heleo.
The intuitive innovator
Science writer Steven Johnson has said that innovation is the result of accumulated hunches over time: it’s what happens when we let personal experience collide with environments that bring out creativity. From this perspective, world-changing inventions—from the x-ray to penicillin—are just “happy accidents” that illustrate intuition in action.
He’s not alone in seeing the importance of intuition in innovation. Co-creator of the Post-it note, Arthur Fry similarly pointed to the power of unconscious processing, telling Scientific American that when he’s trying to come up with something new, “I back away from conscious thought and turn the problem over to my unconscious mind. It will scan a broader array of patterns and find some new close fits from other information stored in my brain.” Intuition facilitates mental cross-training in a way that big data can’t. This is a key skill that allows greater innovators to mash up their experiences and draw on observations from outside industries and apply them in new contexts.
Management expert Travis Bradberry recently wrote that highly intuitive people tend to:
- Be more mindful and seek out solitude
- Practice empathy accurately, tuning into nuances like body language more closely
- Nurture their creativity through a love for the arts
One study showed that this type of thinking yields real business results: 81% of CEOs with high intuition scores doubled their business in five years. Even the U.S. Navy is investing close to 4 million dollars into helping sailors and Marines refine their sixth sense precisely because intuition can superseded intellect in high-stakes situations like the battlefield.
Where intuition can go wrong
Because each person’s intuition is based on a collection of individual experiences, it is subject to opinion and bias.
In many instances, it’s virtually impossible to make decisions without using data. If a company has been collecting and relying on data for decades and is thriving, for instance, there’s no sense in completely throwing out the old playbook. Big data can point out patterns that are too subtle for our brains to detect. Analytics don’t necessarily have to overrule human judgement, but they can complement it.
Rather than trying to value one over the other, leaders can combine insights from big data and intuition to make decisions. This approach gives them the best of both worlds. Here’s how to use it:
- Don’t pit data and intuition against each other: It’s not a war of AI versus humans. Intuition and big data can exist in harmony, especially if companies actively create teams that combine people from diverse backgrounds and schools of thought. Both intuition and data can lead to insights and breakthroughs. Rather than seeing yourself at odds with colleagues who use the opposite technique, be open to the insights they have. Teams that are echo chambers for one way of thinking lead to groupthink and squelch creativity.
- Use intuition to develop a theory and test it with data: A hypothesis, whether in the boardroom or in a lab, is a hunch. It’s an educated guess fueled by intuition, and it can point you in the direction of a potentially remarkable discovery. Once you have a theory, you can put it to the test with data. If intuition is the spark, data is the kindling that allows the fire to burn. Validating, then iterating, provides a method for exploring the hunch further.
- Data makes your findings statistically relevant; intuition provides the ‘gut check”: There’s no denying that data helps you present your case to your team or company leadership. Statistical analysis can put your findings into context and make a strong argument for more funding or development. Intuition, on the other hand, helps you gauge whether your discovery feels accurate and on-point. Using intuition to do a “gut check” can help you earn credibility. You’re less likely to present a discovery that has holes and more likely to communicate your findings in a way that’s relatable.
- Hone your empathy: Cultivating intuition doesn’t just rely on your brain’s ability to detect patterns. It also requires empathy, a skill that can be a huge competitive advantage. Empathy allows you to observe a problem, see how it affects others, and determine how you can fix it. For example, Linkedin’s “People You May Know” feature was developed based on strong hunch that people would be curious to stay updated on what their former colleagues and contacts are up to. There wasn’t much hard evidence to prove that the idea would be successful. It sprung up from a deeper knowing of what drives human needs and desires.
Big data isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. But we tend to grossly undervalue the role intuition plays in decision-making, especially at high levels of leadership. In a time where we all tasked with processing the deluge of information coming at us daily, sometimes it’s worth going with your gut.
Melody Wilding is a high-performance coach, writer, and speaker.