Are your gut instincts right?

It’s a brave manager who would admit to applying intuition – or gut instinct – as a method of decision making in business. But sometimes we feel an urge to go with what we feel rather than focus on the hard data. We want to ignore KPIs, psychometric measurements, market analysis and the like – things that have contributed to management being seen today as more of a science than an art. Our feelings continue to influence the choices we make every day, whether in business or our personal lives, and they’re now starting to be subjected to scientific enquiry.

Can intuition really play a role?

In their 2005 study Intuition: Myth or a Decision-Making Tool?, Marta Sinclair and Neal Ashkanasy report that intuition is being assessed as a possible management tool for organisations facing “today’s ill-structured business environment of fast-paced change and rising uncertainty”. They say the main challenge is how to objectively study this evasive and mostly instinctive phenomenon using scientific methods, which “may necessitate an interdisciplinary approach that merges insights from diverse perspectives”.

The first step is defining what intuitive processing is. Sinclair and Ashkanasy, who drew on a wide range of previous studies, say it’s “a non-conscious scanning of internal (in memory) and external (in environment) resources in a non-logical, non-temporal manner in order to identify relevant pieces of information that are fitted into the ‘solution picture’ in a seemingly haphazard way”.

Put more simply, they liken it to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. “When the assembled pieces start making sense, the ‘big picture’ suddenly appears, frequently accompanied by a feeling of certitude or relief.”

The subconscious decision

Similarly, researchers at Leeds University Business School drew on previous studies in concluding that gut feelings are valid psychological phenomena that draw on past experiences and current external cues to make decisions in a process that is so rapid, it’s subconscious.

In research published in the British Journal of Psychology, they said people usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure, in a situation of information overload or faced with acute danger. Lead researcher Professor Gerard Hodgkinson gave the example of a Formula One racing driver who braked sharply when nearing a bend, thereby avoiding a collision with an unseen pile-up ahead and very probably saving his life.

“The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race,” says Hodgkinson.

Tellingly, when psychologists showed the driver a video of the event he realised he had responded to a peripheral cue from the crowd: they’d stopped cheering and were instead looking at the crash. Thus, based on previous experience, the driver’s brain subconsciously processed the situation to alert him that something was wrong.

So it seems there may be a role for gut instinct in decision making, particularly when quick decisions are needed. After all, trusting your instinct usually means relying on your lifetime store of knowledge and experience.

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