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When to Trust Your Gut: Understanding Intuition

Updated: Nov 17, 2023



The idea that you should “just trust your gut” (that is, make many life decisions solely based on intuition rather than reflection) is obviously very popular. However, intuition isn’t magic. We argue that there are only four types of situations where you’re likely to benefit from relying on intuition alone: when a decision is Fast, Irrelevant, Repetitious, or Evolutionary. We call this the FIRE framework.

1. Fast decisions

When there is no option but to make a decision quickly, thinking it through carefully can be infeasible. In these cases, intuition is your only option because it’s the only method of deciding that’s fast enough.

Examples:

  • The car barreling towards you in the other lane has just swerved into your lane.

  • You’re in a job interview and are asked whether you’d still be interested in this job if it pays less than your prior job.

  • The train you’re deciding whether to take is about to depart, and there is no other train for five hours.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the intuition-driven decisions you make in these contexts will be optimal; there is a vast amount of high-quality evidence (some of which is outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s popular book, Thinking Fast and Slow) that the intuitive, fast thinking you do can be prone to systematic errors / biases. But, sometimes, that’s your only option!

2. Irrelevant decisions


When a decision is of low importance, minimizing time, effort, and indecisiveness is more important than optimizing for the best outcome. In these cases, intuition can be your best option because it requires fewer cognitive resources than careful reflection.

Examples:

  • You are deciding which grocery store line to join, based on its length.

  • You are deciding whether to ‘like’ or scroll past a social media post, based on your initial reaction.

  • You are trying to decide which $5 product to buy among several similar options.

When the stakes are low, you don’t need your decision-making procedure to be well-calibrated for generating true beliefs or optimal outcomes. So, why not use intuition?

3. Repetitious decisions

If you are making a decision about something that you have lots of experience with and you have received reliable information on how your past decisions turned out, then your intuition is likely to be reasonably trustworthy because it’s been honed through practice with feedback.

Examples:

  • A heart surgeon who is conducting her 500th heart surgery (but not a heart surgeon who is conducting her 2nd heart surgery).

  • A digital marketer writing email newsletter headlines who has been tracking the performance of each such email for five years (but not one who doesn’t track the performance of the emails).

  • A chess player making a decision about which move to make after playing chess daily for years (but not a chess player playing backgammon).

But this isn’t magic. As the scholar of decision-making, Herbert Simon, has put it:

“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

This insight is further explained by the recognition-primed decision model of decision-making, developed by psychologists in the 1980s. This model suggests that through repeated exposure to similar situations, you can learn to recognize patterns that lead to successful outcomes, particularly in domains in which you have expertise. Instead of methodically weighing all possible options, your brain recalls a past situation that closely matches the current one and intuitively applies the solution that worked previously. It’s as if you have a mental library of scenarios and responses to draw from, which streamlines the decision-making process.

However, this kind of reasoning isn't infallible. It relies heavily on you having encountered sufficiently varied situations to build a big enough 'library' of scenarios. It also depends on your ability to accurately remember previous outcomes and apply them to new but similar challenges. When faced with entirely novel situations or when past experiences are not well-suited to the current context, even well-practiced experts must revert to more analytical or slower decision-making processes.

4. Evolutionary decisions

If your decision is the sort of survival-relevant decision that your ancestors had to make regularly over your evolutionary history, we should expect that you have evolved to have reasonable instincts in this domain. In these cases, your intuitions are quite reliable: your genes endow you with these intuitions precisely because they helped earlier copies of your genes survive.

Example:

  • Should you eat that foul-smelling old food?

  • Is that person who has been staring at you likely to have malicious intent?

  • Should you walk on that injured knee that’s causing searing pain?

 

So, to recap, we are arguing that pure intuition is the right solution pretty much only for FIRE decisions, that is, those that meet one of the following conditions:

  • Fast, because you don’t have time for anything else.

  • Irrelevant, because the costs of other approaches are higher than it’s worth paying.

  • Repetitious, because with lots of practice, when you’re receiving reliable feedback, your intuition becomes well-honed.

  • Evolutionary, because certain types of decision-related instincts are built into your biology.

And here’s a flowchart to capture this framework:

intuition on decision making

So if a decision is not FIRE, you’re probably best off thinking the decision through carefully, discussing the decision with others, writing out pros and cons, etc. Intuition still plays a very important role in those cases, but it plays a supporting role (e.g., to help you figure out things like what you value, to help you estimate likelihoods, to help you synthesize lots of information into an overall judgment, etc.) rather than playing the only role. Since it is so important, we want to emphasize this point: intuition almost always plays a critical role in decision-making.

The question here is just whether you’re merely (1) “going with your gut” (for the whole decision), or whether you are (2) feeding your intuitions (which might include intuitions about what you value, what you predict is true, what you feel, etc.) into a broader decision-making process.

So don’t just go with your gut. Go with your gut when your decision is FIRE, and otherwise, let your gut be a really useful tool, rather than letting it be in charge of the whole process.

 

This framework was first presented by Clearer Thinking founder, Spencer Greenberg, at TEDxColumbusCircle, which you can watch free on Youtube.


If you want to dig deeper into decision-making, we also encourage you to take our 7-Day Make Better Decisions Challenge, a free, research-based email mini-course designed to sharpen your decision-making abilities and present important concepts on decision-making in just 7 days (and just 2 minutes per day).



This post was written by Spencer Greenberg and edited by Travis Manuel.


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