Should You Trust Your Intuition? – Part II

by Stephen Mills on November 7, 2009


This is the conclusion of the intuition series that began with this article:

Should You Trust Your Intuition?

The first article detailed areas where studies have shown our intuition doesn’t serve us well.  This article will detail those areas where we do a lot better with our intuitive knowledge.

Before getting to that however I would like to briefly address something that came out in the comments on the first article.  Some of you didn’t seem to agree with the conclusions.  You obviously believe you are much better at those intuitions than research would indicate.  I guess this should not be surprising.  Overconfidence bias is well known in psychology.  Our overconfidence in our abilities has been clearly demonstrated.  So it is not surprising that such overconfidence extends to our beliefs about our intuition.  To believe that our intuitive abilities are somehow excluded from that bias is likely nothing more than wishful thinking.

It does not surprise me that the mothers, wives, children and friends of clearly guilty defendants go to court and testify on their behalf claiming that there is “no way” they could have done the crime.  I have no doubt that they are usually very sincere in their beliefs.  I also have no doubt they are often clearly mistaken.

Anecdotal evidence is excluded from scientific conclusions for good reason.  It is clearly unreliable.  We all argue from personal experience because we usually have nothing else.  I do it all the time.  However, I am not so deluded as to believe that means a whole lot.  It’s better than nothing, but when presented with good studies that show something different, I will go with the scientific evidence every time.  Science may not be perfect but it is the best we have right now.

When Intuition Does Work Well

Intuitive attitudes and feelings

Intuitively expressed attitudes predict later behavior better than analyzed attitudes.  Subjects who simply express their attitude about people or things will later be shown to behave in alignment with that attitude.  However, if subjects are asked to analyze their attitudes before expressing them, the reported attitude does not predict their subsequent behavior.

What this may mean is that consciously analyzing your attitudes will cause you to focus on things that are easily verbalized at the expense of more important factors that are hard to put into words or factors of which you are not consciously aware.

As just one example consider the following.  Dating couples who were simply asked if they were happy with their relationship reported attitudes that strongly predicted whether they were still dating several months later.  However, if they were first asked to list all the reasons why their relationships were good or bad, their subsequent happiness report was useless in predicting if they would be dating several months later.  When it comes to feelings, your intuition is a good thing.  Reflecting on feelings just draws attention to plausible but sometimes erroneous factors.  Go with your gut.

As a man, I love this example.  Ladies, no more relationship chatter please 🙂

Reading Personality Traits

It should not surprise anyone that humans have a lot of social intelligence.  Subjects were shown short clips of teachers in a class.  These clips ranged from thirty seconds down to as short as two seconds.  Even on the shortest clips there was high correlation between the subjects valuation of the teachers’ personality traits and those of students who spent an entire semester in the classes with those teachers.  These and other experiments demonstrate that instant evaluations are often as good as lasting impressions.  Maybe instant impressions last, but either way the instant evaluations are often as good as longer term evaluations.

Being in touch with our bodies

Many instant emotional reactions are valid and occur in our bodies first while bypassing the conscious mind.  There is even some evidence that some of our emotions are actually a result of the mind reading our own body’s reaction.  Our minds sense our increased heart rates, blood pressure, stomach tightness, etc. and then form an emotional reaction in our minds.  We are one integrated system.

Women’s intuition

Both men and women are intuitively good at this stuff, but… Women surpass men in reading emotions in all kinds of messages (no kidding!).  Women are better than men at reading facial expressions.  Women are better at detecting lies.  Women are better in decoding relative power (who is the boss and who is the subordinate).

Non-conscious learning

Your brain has amazing powers in the area of non-conscious learning and expertise.  A lot of research has been done in this area.  We learn how to do things without without knowing we know and/or not knowing how we are doing it.  I remember reading once about experiments with two decks of cards.  The test subject played some game by drawing from one of two decks.  One of the decks was a lot more favorable than the other.    It didn’t take long for the subjects to start drawing more frequently from the more favorable deck.  However, the interesting thing was that they started this before they realized they were doing it and before they consciously determined that one deck was more favorable.  They intuitively figured out one deck was favorable, but they didn’t consciously realize that fact or know how they did it.

Other experiments have shown people can detect patterns that are complex which they simply can’t explain.  In other words they can’t consciously understand the pattern even though their unconscious mind has already solved it.  I find this kind of stuff absolutely fascinating.

Non-conscious memory

We intuitively remember what we cannot consciously recall.  Imagine this.  You are wearing headphones.  In one ear you are listening to a prose passage and you are repeating the words and checking them against a written transcript you have been provided.  It takes such completely focused attention that you are totally oblivious to novel tunes being played in your other ear.

Later you are unable to pick out any of these tunes from among others that you did not hear.  You have no conscious memory that you have ever heard any of them.  You cannot pick them out of a musical lineup.  However, when you are asked to rate all the tunes, the ones you heard and the ones you didn’t, you will prefer the tunes that you heard.  Similar results are obtained with unfamiliar names.  Your brain is storing memories of things to which you are not attending and which can’t be consciously recalled.

Other research on certain brain damaged patients who can no longer recall anything new they learn, has demonstrated that they can actually learn and remember a great deal.  They cannot consciously recall any of it and have no memory whatsoever of having learned it.  They will deny they’ve ever been exposed to it and yet experiments prove they have learned it.  They can even be taught very complicated job skills.

Learned expertise

Once you become an expert on something, you just intuitively know what to do without thinking about it.  A chess master can make a great move in seconds without possibly being able to consciously analyze it in such a short time.  He just intuitively knows the right move.  Athletes intuitively make instant decisions and movements that are usually correct.  They just “feel it”.  They can’t possibly take the time reason it out because they don’t have enough time to to do so.  A baseball or tennis ball coming at you will get to you faster than your visual cortex can create a picture in your conscious mind.

How about chicken sexers? Sex organs are indistinguishable in chicks and until the adult feathers start showing up at five to six weeks, the sex of the chickens can not be determined.  Some Japanese have developed the uncanny ability to accurately sex day-old chicks, even though poultry farmers can’t tell the difference.  Foreign hatcheries started sending apprentices to work with the Japanese and they learned how to do the same thing by getting feedback from the Japanese experts on their guesses.  They don’t know how they do it.  It seems it is too complex and subtle for the conscious mind to reason out.


Clearly our intuitive or non-conscious mind is a powerful tool as long as we understand when it is likely to be effective and when it is likely to lead us astray.  I think science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the power and the perils of the non-conscious mind.  The tools for peering into the human brain while the owner is still alive have only recently become available.  The future is bright as far as I’m concerned.

I hope you intuitive types out there liked this article better than the first one.  It’s not all bad news.  Personally, when I have trouble reasoning something out, I will usually just go with my gut rather than agonize over it.  This is especially true if the consequences of choosing one way or the other are not overly significant.  However, having learned where human intuition is not all that reliable, I am more likely to give it more thought than I might have before.  I recommend you do the same.  A little scientific reasonableness may just be what the doctor (Ph.D) ordered.  Going overboard just because intuition is hot right now may not be the best approach.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisis | Quest For Balance November 7, 2009 at 7:19 am

I don’t know about this Overconfidence Bias. I have very little confidence in my own abilities, but I have a ton of Faith (not the religious sort), and I know the only way we can tap into it is through intuition. Reason demands solid explanations. Faith is believing without needing to see concrete proof.

For me at least, intuition lies in the realm of Faith. So, even though there are some things about it that can be tested and proven, most of the powers of intuition are WAY beyond our ability to comprehend. I’m still working on tapping into my intuition, which has been beaten down by my logical brain for decades.

The mothers, etc., who testify in court aren’t using intuition, but a combination of wishful thinking and denial. Intuition has been around for thousands of years; it just got suppressed by the Cartesian/ Newtonian mechanistic view of science in which everything had to be explained in a simple cause and effect method with preset variables (which, btw, were preset by the Church).

When Einstein came along, he finally freed us of some of those “in the box” constraints, so we have started making scientific progress towards understanding intuition. But whether we understand it or not, doesn’t change the fact that it’s always been there, and it works.

The Dalai Lama once gave an example of how the Western Scientific mind operates in which we are looking for our keys but we set the condition upfront that they are in THIS room. We search and search until we’re nearly crazy, but can’t find the keys, so we conclude they don’t exist, because we refused to look outside of the room.

I’m afraid I just don’t share your faith in science. It’s false conclusions (often sponsored by special interests) have disappointed me too many times.
.-= Lisis | Quest For Balance´s last blog ..Why Losing Some of the Time is Necessary to Winning All of the Time =-.


Stephen Mills November 7, 2009 at 8:09 am

Hi Lisis, don’t apologize for a long comment. I love them. Thanks for taking time to make a thoughtful comment. The interesting thing about the overconfidence bias is that nobody thinks it applies to them. I know mothers aren’t using intuition. The point of that example was simply believing something strongly doesn’t make it so. I would call that faith, and it is simply mistaken faith. Yes it is wishful thinking and denial, just like faith in something that goes against the evidence.

Of course I disagree with you and I don’t have “faith” in science. It works. I trust the scientific method because it produces results. Also, the Dali Lama is very scientific and he says when science disagrees with Buddhist teaching, the teaching will change to match science. I find it fascinating you used him as an example.

I also find your whole comment interesting in that reading it one would think I don’t believe intuition works. I find that fascinating 🙂


Lisis | Quest For Balance November 7, 2009 at 7:20 am

PS: Sorry for the post-within-a-post. 🙂


Stephen Mills November 7, 2009 at 8:17 am

“My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation.” — Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama


Lisis | Quest For Balance November 7, 2009 at 9:07 am

You know, I almost included that quote in my mini-post in order to address it upfront. He’s not exactly saying that science trumps faith (though it often trumps religion), but instead that each religion should be open to change according to new knowledge and understanding of facts (like, storms aren’t caused by an angry Zeus or Poseidon):

“IF science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.”

My position is that, just because science can’t yet prove something, doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Having said that, it sounds like you and I both are open to the possibility of intuition being real and powerful, we just go about wrapping our brains around it a different way.


Stephen Mills November 7, 2009 at 9:47 am

Lisis, “just because science can’t yet prove something, doesn’t mean it isn’t so.” I couldn’t agree more. But when science shows something is false, it probably does mean it is false.

Of course I believe intuition is real! How could you read this article and others and not see that? I think we have not even begun to understand how our non-conscious brain works. However, there are areas such as those detailed in the first article, where research shows it doesn’t work well. We have to understand where it works and where it doesn’t and act accordingly. That is the only true path to understanding reality. Critical investigation, as the Dalai Lama refers to science, is the way to untangle what is true from what is wishful thinking.

Thanks for the dialog!


Positively Present November 7, 2009 at 9:40 am

Great Part II, Stephen! I really enjoyed it!


Stephen Mills November 7, 2009 at 9:47 am

Thanks for commenting Dani!


Jonny November 7, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Brilliant post, very well written. This paragraph, like a chipmunk in porridge, stood out for me.

“Other experiments have shown people can detect patterns that are complex which they simply can’t explain. In other words they can’t consciously understand the pattern even though their unconscious mind has already solved it.”

Creativity and innovation is simply patterns, making link between all you experiences and creating something new. This is why I believe so heavily in the subconscious mind for creativity and feed it with information as much as I can. The subconscious will create the links far better than your conscious ever will.

I know this to be true because all my very best ideas have always just come to me out of the blue, my subconcious working in overdrive while me conscious watches “The Fast and The Furious.”
.-= Jonny´s last blog ..My Friend, You And I Are Both Losers…But It’s Ok Don’t Cry =-.


Karlil November 8, 2009 at 12:45 am

Awesome article Stephen.. So, when it comes to relationship, I can actually trust my feelings. That’s good news Stephen. Say if I like a girl, and I sensed the relationship won’t last, I can try to do something about it long before the actual break up, that will inevitably occur if I left things as it is.


Steven November 8, 2009 at 3:24 am

Hey Stephen,

Its the first time I’m reading something off of your blog, and already you write a post with such fascinating and interesting topic to read.

To me, intuition is a major part of my life. I realize that the conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there is a whole other story beneath it – the subconscious.

I tend to trust my intuition, because I trust that my brain picks up subliminal information from practically everywhere that I will never recall consciously and indirectly helps me in related situations.

Often times when I feel something isn’t right, I tell myself that it is probably because that my mind has the subconscious information which it probably picked up from the past and that it is trying to tell me something.

However, most of the time when I do get the intuitive “feeling” (which is all the time really), I get into the habit of rationalizing it and figuring out why I feel like that, where I could have subconsciously picked that up from in the past. By rationalizing my intuition, I sometimes I can make better decisions, because I can decide whether to trust my intuition or not (if the sources of the intuition is credible to the current situation, or is it a sort of distorted perception of reality that I have subconsciously embedded within myself during the past).

Again, fascinating topic that you’ve brought up here I think I’m just going to stay here and read more…:)

.-= Steven´s last blog ..Why Aren’t You Successful…Yet? =-.


Miche - Serenity Hacker November 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm

“I think science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the power and the perils of the non-conscious mind.” I agree totally. And I don’t know how far we’ve come yet… 🙂 Miche
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..Accepting Suffering and A Call for Compassion =-.


Vin - NaturalBias November 9, 2009 at 8:03 am

I agree, this stuff is fascinating! Especially our ability to learn and remember subconsciously. At any given moment, the brain is receiving an incredible amount of information. It’s impossible for it all to be interpreted, but at the same time, it’s amazing how much of it actually is interpreted without us even realizing it.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Why You Must Respect Your Energy Like a Bank Account =-.


Derrick November 10, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Intuition can’t always be “right”. Because we have to remember,how do we know if it is right or wrong? It does not always have to be the results that we were hoping for or thinking of to be right for the situation as a whole. I see intuition as a sense or a feeling…when you learn to feel it… trust it and go for it,there is no better feeling!The result or what happens is only part of the whole situation…don’t resist it…..rather continue to be intuitive in that moment. Kind of like saying(You don’t live life…life lives you…again….don’t resist)

Thank you Stephen,I must start setting more time aside to read on your sight. I really enjoy chatting up topics such as this.I’ve got my opinion yes….but I love to hear others.



Nea | Self Improvement Saga November 16, 2009 at 11:08 pm

I think the main source of confusion here is the way intuition is defined. The term is, understandably, being used somewhat loosely. It can be quite hard to grasp the concept if you live in a Western society unless you’ve chosen to explore a path very different (spiritually) from the masses. The development of the intuition is not something we generally work on.

My only real point is that deeply rooted fears and beliefs that cause you to misjudge situations are not at all related to intuition. They are related to fear and the Ego. A person filled with fears and worldly concerns is unlikely to realize just how out of touch they are with their intuition.

I think it is great to learn to truly listen and to not confuse the voice of the Higher Self with that of the Ego (false center).
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..Positive News Stories – A Welcome Change =-.


ilona January 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Hey i am doing an assignment evaluating in which situations intuition is reliable. I just wanted to point out that the based on the stereotype women supposedly have a more developed empathic ability. (the ability to read other people). The theory is that women tend to be more interested in social matters around them and often become skilled in intuitively judging a situation based on knowledge gained over the lifetime.

However, research indicates that in fact there is no gender based difference in empathic abilities, women are just more motivated when consciously reminded they should be as accurate as possible when ‘reading the mind’ of a partner.


Derrick January 16, 2012 at 1:21 am

Honestly,without intended sarcasm. My intuition is that you are a female. Not because I just read what I read. But because it is what it is. My vote is for ego…ego…ego.


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