President Trump once said he makes policy decisions “off the cuff” because, as he put it, “I’m an intuitive person.”
He’s not alone, of course, in believing that intuition leads to better results. Plenty of other people also claim to have above-average (bigly?) “gut instincts” — ones that they believe enable them to make wiser decisions than if they used more rational mental processes.
A recent study from Great Britain, however, suggests that relying on intuition may be yet another delusion we have about ourselves. It found that people who say they’re more intuitive (as opposed to rational) are no better than others at performing tasks that require intuition.
“We found no evidence that individuals’ dispositional trust in their intuition was warranted,” write the study’s two authors, University of Kent psychologist Mario Weick and doctoral student Stefan Leach.
“Furthermore, while confidence in one’s intuitions vis-à-vis a particular task at hand may bear some relation to actual intuition performance, the predictive validity is likely low and may lead to frequent misjudgments,” they add.
A pair of experiments
For the study, Weick and Leach conducted two separate experiments involving about 400 people in the U.K. and U.S. Before taking part in the experiments, the participants filled out special questionnaires designed to determine how intuitive they believed they were. The questionnaires asked how much they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “In making decisions, it makes sense to completely rely on your feelings,” “I believe in trusting my hunches” and “I hardly ever go wrong when I listen to my deepest gut feelings to find an answer.”
For the experiment itself, the participants were asked to perform tasks involving seemingly random strings of letters or social media profile photos. The letters and photos actually contained hidden rules or patterns, however. The participants were then instructed to use their “gut feelings” to decide whether new strings of letters or photos adhered to the rules.
When they were done with the task, the participants answered questions aimed at determining how well they thought they had done and whether or not they had relied on their intuition.
Weick and Leach then pooled the data from these two experiments with some data collected from previous research.
“We found that people’s enduring beliefs in their intuitions were a poor guide to actual performance,” they write. “In particular, people who were dispositionally inclined to place greater trust in their intuitions did not perform any better in the test phase of the implicit learning task than people who did not place such great trust in their intuitions.”
Limitations and implications
This study comes with several important limitations. Most notably, it involved a relatively small number of people, and it tested their intuition with a single type of task.
These findings should not be generalized, Weick and Leach point out, “to other facets of intuition, such as the intuitive decision-making of experts” — although, as the two researchers also note, “studies on expert intuitions often arrive at similar conclusions as the present research.”
Still, despite these limitations, the study’s findings are intriguing, as they suggest our confidence in our intuitive powers may yet another blind spot in our ability to see ourselves as we really are.
I’m not sure our current president would agree, however.