Never Make a Critical Decision “Based” on Intuition

Intuition can be a valuable tool …  but only if used in the right order.

During my presentation on Decision Making, I often ask:

“Who here would consider yourself to be a natural, intuitive decision-maker and problem-solver?” Anybody?

Invariably, not a single hand is raised.

I then ask,

“Who here would like to be a natural, intuitive, decision-maker problem solver?”

This time, almost everyone raises their hand.

Here’s the thing: 

We ARE natural intuitive, decision-makers and problem-solvers, and in our modern world, that’s the problem!

We Mistake Feeling Right with Being Right

Intuition is so compelling when making decisions and solving problems because it causes us to feel right, and feeling right and being right are NOT related.

We’ve Been Hardwired and Programmed to Rely on Intuition

Over the eons of our evolutionary development, we have been hardwired to make decisions based on gut instincts and intuition. This basic survival mechanism worked beautifully on the savannah, but in our modern world, it can lead to decisional disaster.

Intuition is Not a Means of Assessing Complexity but of Ignoring It

The human brain craves certainty. Your brain senses uncertainty as a threat and a clear sign of danger, so it’s constantly striving to get that feeling of being right, and nothing feels righter than our intuition.

Suppose you’ve acquired a good deal of expertise in a particular field. In that case, it may surprise you to know that using your intuition to make decisions — within the field of your expertise — will often result in a bad decision. That happens because intuition causes feelings of “rightness”, so we subconsciously neglect logic, reason, and effortful thinking.

Your experience and intuition are of great value, but only if you use them in the correct sequence.

Intuition — Daniel Kahneman’s Surprising Discovery

Daniel Kahneman; Licensed under the Creative Commons

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman shared a story about how he came to understand intuition, when it can be helpful, and when it will result in false confidence and irrationality.

Many decades ago, Daniel Kahneman was serving in the psychology branch of the Israeli Defense Forces.

In 1955, the commanding officers believed that each branch had its own personality. They believed that there was a “fighter pilot” type, an “armored unit” type, an “infantry type,” and so on. So, when new recruits were first interviewed, the commanders wanted to immediately determine in which branch each recruit was best suited.

Moshe Dayan, Israeili Defense Forces, Licensed under the Creative Commons

To solve this knotty problem, they turned to Daniel Kahneman, a 21-year-old Lieutenant whose sole qualification was a BA in psychology.

Looking back, Kahneman said he was no more qualified for the task than he was to build a bridge across the Amazon, but then again, in 1955, Israel was only seven years old, and virtually every system was being created from scratch.

At that time, the Defense Forces had an interview routine in place, but as the commanders readily acknowledged, it was next to useless. Back then, the interviewers (who were mostly women) were themselves draftees who were selected by virtue of their high intelligence and interest in dealing with people.

These interviewers were given a two-week crash course on how to conduct a 15-to-20-minute interview by covering a range of topics. Then, based on the recruit’s responses, they were to form a general impression of how well the recruit would do in the army and then assign him to a particular branch.

Kahneman’s task was to design an interview that would be more useful but would not take any more time. So, he devised a procedure in which the interviewers would evaluate several relevant personality traits such as “responsibility,” “sociability,” “masculine pride,” and so on. Then, for each trait, the interviewers would ask a series of preset, factual questions about the individual’s life before his enlistment, such as;

  • The number of jobs he had held,
  • How regular and punctual he had been in his work or studies,
  • The frequency of interaction with friends, and
  • His interest and participation in sports and so on.

The focus of the questions was not to determine what the interviewers thought of him but rather to determine how he actually behaved.

Kahneman felt that by focusing on standardized, factual questions, he could combat the halo effect — where first impressions would influence later judgments.

The interviewers were instructed to go through the six traits in a fixed sequence, rating each trait on a five-point scale. Their job was to provide a reliable number and to leave the predictive validity to the formula, and that was that.

To Kahneman’s surprise, the interviewers came close to mutiny. They felt as though they were being ordered to turn off their intuition and function like robots.

Kahneman felt he had to compromise, so he told them to carry out the interview exactly as he had instructed. When finished, the interviewer was to close her eyes and try to imagine the recruit as a soldier three or four months from now. Using whatever formula or system they chose, they were to assign that recruit to the branch they felt he was best suited to.

A few months later, after several hundred interviews had been conducted using this method, the results showed that the sum of the six ratings predicted a soldier’s performance much more accurately than the previous evaluations of the interview method.

Discovering Intuitive Judgement

And then Kahneman found something most interesting — and that was that the intuitive judgment that the interviewers summoned in their “close your eyes” exercise performed just as well as the sum of the six specific ratings. In other words, they didn’t know what Kahneman’s numbers meant and how they applied to his evaluation, but they did learn something about evaluation by following his procedure.

And from that revelation, Kahneman learned a valuable lesson that he’s never forgotten, which is this;

Do not trust intuitive judgment — your own or anyone else’s — unless it is made by someone experienced in their area of concern, and only then if it follows a disciplined decision-making process.

The Process Stood the Test of Time

The process Kahneman created proved so successful that the Israeli military has used it up to the present.

In his book The Undoing Project, author Michael Lewis wrote;

The question the Israeli military has asked him (Which personalities are best suited to which military roles?), had turned out to make no sense. So Kahneman answered a different, more fruitful question:

How do we prevent the intuition of interviewers from screwing up their assessment of army recruits?

He’s been asked to divine the character of the nation’s youth. Instead, he’d discovered something about people who try to divine other people’s characters: Remove their gut feelings, and their judgments improve. He’d been handed a narrow problem and discovered a broad truth.

In his McKinsey Quarterly article “On the Origin of Strategies,” consultant Eric Beinhocker put it this way:

“The properties of complex adaptive systems present particular challenges to the development of business strategy because people have a natural tendency to look for patterns. Indeed, the human drive to find patterns is so strong that they are often read into perfectly random data. Moreover, human beings like to assume that cause directly precedes effect, which makes it difficult to anticipate the second, third, and fourth-order effects of path dependence.”

In Harvard Business Review, Eric Bonabeau, in “Don’t Trust Your Gut” wrote:

The instinctive rush to apply a pattern to a phenomenon can also cut off or narrow an individual’s or a group’s thinking too quickly. Impatient with ambiguity, the mind naturally seeks closure — that seems, in fact, to be one of the main functions of intuition — but an intelligent decision-making process often requires the sustained exploration of many alternatives. You want to keep the process open as long as possible before converging on a final choice. That’s hard to do when your gut — or your boss’s gut — is giving you The Answer.

When making important decisions, there’s no such thing as a no-brainer. Every major decision is fraught with misperceptions, biases, and other tricks of the mind that … if left unchecked … will have a profound influence on your choices, and you won’t even know it.

When you make a critical decision, intuition can complement a good decision, but it cannot replace a decision-making process — so when you’re confronted with an important decision, that’s a nugget of information you don’t want to forget.

Click here for the link to — The 7 Steps of an Anatomy of “Good” Decision.

I am the author of The Challenge of Choice … how to make a “good” decision when it REALLY matters!