Research Cycle

 Vol 5|No 3|February|2009
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When should we question
and when should we trust our intuitions?

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author

Trusting one's gut, we have seen in recent years, can lead to disastrous consequences, especially when that trust is not anchored in judgment, experience and some basis in fact.

As New Zealand now proclaims in its curriculum statements that students will " . . . reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions," teachers should be asking how to equip students to draw on intuitions in ways that will lead to smart decisions.

The line between intuition on the one hand and instinct, fantasy and impulse on the other has been poorly drawn by the culture, so that hocus-pocus can easily shove aside more careful thinking and policy making. Leaders can imagine WMDs in a desert where there is nothing much more than mirage.

We must equip the young with the capacity to distinguish between wizardry and sound policy. The wizard masquerades behind fake magic - sleight of hand and conjuring - producing and fabricating evidence of WMDs when none exist.

We must beware of emperors parading nakedly in clothes sewn from delusion and wish fulfillment. If we do not hold our leaders to a high standard and learn from history's mistakes, we are condemned as Santayana warned us, to repeat those mistakes.

What is Intuition, Really?

Intuition has been used by so many different people in so many different ways that it is difficult to nail it down or give it any clarity. There are hundreds of New Age prophets who advertise books, videos and tapes to help you (or your child) learn to trust your intuition. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking - a book extolling the benefits of intuitive thought was a raging best seller even though it failed to clarify the difference between dangerous intuition and the more trustworthy variants. Some of these books urge you to trust the back pains and stomach aches that are messages about the stock market or a potential new employee. There is something disingenuous about a title that includes the words "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."

The lack of clarity and definition weakens the value of the concept.

Intuition is related to but quite different from instinct.

Animals often act on instinct, recognizing a potential threat by the body language of an approaching dog, for example. Without much rational analysis, they know the intruder means trouble.

Humans retain lots of instinctual savvy. As a runner, I can usually recognize a potential threat by the body language of an approaching dog. I know which are smiling and wagging their tails in contrast to those who want their ounce of flesh. This instinctual knowledge probably goes back centuries and requires little analysis, just as the survival response of alpha male human against an alpha male dog requires little thought. For many years I simply used a big growl and a big stick to scare the attacking dog away. But then I read an article about a completely different approach. This article suggested confusing the attacking dog (or pack of dogs) by greeting them sweetly and jovially.

"Hey, Beautiful! How are you? What a good dog!"

The first time I tried this strategy, the attacking, growling dog stopped in total surprise and looked at me with something close to pity. He was disgusted and obviously thought me unworthy of his attentions. He turned about in search of more interesting prey.

There are many words often confused with intuition that are really closer to instinct. They do not merit the serious consideration that should be paid to intuition, but they are often grouped and confused with it so intuition receives little serious attention.

Examples: hunches, guesses, suspicions, wishes, fancies, fantasies, wishes ---> gut instinct.

Intuition is a kind of knowing and understanding that relies upon the capacity to read signals, clues and patterns, often based on previous experience. We expect the doctor with several decades of experience to make such intuitive judgments with more skill when diagnosing a patient than an intern just starting out, but we would also expect that doctor to temper the understandings flowing from intuition with medical and scientific knowledge.

In a similar fashion, we would expect that a veteran teacher with a high degree of empathy would be able to walk into a room and "read the group" intuitively, recognizing the mood of the students as a result of many signs given through body language, tone, facial expressions and movements. The experienced teacher should be able to select strategies that are likely to match the challenge presented by the group, having been in similar spots before, while the novice may only know that the group is going to be "trouble," and be at a loss as to what should be done. At the same time, there are some teachers who never do notice these signals early or late in their careers. They are sadly intuitively challenged.

Showing the Young

This article takes the position that we can help young people, our students, learn to blend their intuitions into a balanced approach to decision-making that combines various ways of knowing and understanding without allowing any one mode to sway the process dangerously.

Gamblers are renowned for betting on gut instincts, often with disastrous results, betting the pay check and the house that a certain number will hit on the very next spin. When political leaders indulge the same kinds of feelings and hunches without anchoring them in sound intelligence and thorough investigation, the costs can be devastating.

Pertinent Quotations

"Guts are important. Your guts are what digest things. But it is your brains that tell you which things to swallow and which not to swallow." Austin Dacey

"Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough." Robert Heller

"Intuition makes much of it; I mean by this the faculty of seeing a connection between things that in appearance are completely different; it does not fail to lead us astray quite often." Andre Weil

"One of the principles that we operate on in this country is that leaders are held accountable. The simple truth is that we went into Iraq on the basis of some intuition, some fear, and some exaggerated rhetoric and some very, very scanty evidence" Wesley Clark

"Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts. We all have a certain intuition, and the older we get, the more we trust it...I use my intellect to inform my instinct. Then I use my instinct to test all this data. Hey, instinct, does this sound right? Does it smell right, feel right, fit right?" Colin Powell

"He did not arrive at this conclusion by the decent process of quiet, logical deduction, nor yet by the blinding flash of glorious intuition, but by the shoddy, untidy process halfway between the two by which one usually gets to know things." Margery Allingham

Developing Intuition as a Skill

There a number of steps required to help students make use of their intuitions along with their other mental operations and capacities.

  1. Clarifying, Demystifying and Defining
  2. Enhancing Awareness and the Ability to Read Intuitions
  3. Testing and Balancing Intuitions against Other Thinking

Clarifying, Demystifying and Defining

Because intuition is often confused with the mystical, the psychic and the magical, it is important to lead students through a demystifying process, separating out the New Age connotations so that they can focus on those aspects of intuition most likely to improve their decision-making. As this article opened with such a consideration, students should be led through a search that shows them the range of possibilities from instinct, guessing and visitation to more reliable ways of thinking about intuition. This is not to say that all spiritual awakenings should be dismissed out of hand, but schools should focus their attention on mental processes that are less rooted in magic.

"In the context of the Tarot Meanings Dictionary, a Psychic is a person who is sensitive and receptive to non-physical information, energy, influences or forces and is able to effectively communicate this non-physical information."

This article is separating intuition from the paranormal (phenomena, observations, occurrences, etc: beyond the normal scope of scientific explanation, and therefore not possible to explain in terms of current understanding of scientific laws.) While this separation may seem arbitrary to some, it helps match intuition up with more analytical potential partners. It might otherwise suffer from association with Electronic Voice Phenomena, Disembodied Voices, Electro Magnetic Fields, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Apparitions.

One good way for students to develop their own definitions of intuition is to explore quotations from famous and (sometimes) smart people, dividing across a spectrum ranging from New Age to more grounded understandings.

The Web offers many good quotation sites to support this learning strategy.

Another good way for students to develop their own definitions of intuition is to browse through the many seminars and books currently available on the Web or at book sites such as Amazon. They can be led through a sorting process again that groups the magical at one end of the spectrum in contrast to those more analytically promising.

It is unlikely that New Zealand intended to raise a generation of wizards or shamans, but it should be noted that a term like guru is sometimes employed by corporate types. We should always bear in mind that management thinker Eric Hoffer was quoted as saying that "Guru is a word for those cannot spell charlatan."

Enhancing Awareness and the Ability to Read Intuitions

Some people are more naturally tuned into the signals and signs available from this intuitive dimension of experience than others. Once the students have spent several hours exploring definitions, quotations and readings about the term, it makes sense to have them collect field data, testing out their own powers of intuition in various ways.

1. Meeting New People

Students at the middle school and high school level can be asked to share stories of meeting new people in the past (a neighbor, a teacher, a new student) who proved to be the kind of person their intuition first indicated. While we must beware of reinforcing stereotypes and preconceptions that are rooted in racial or group prejudice of various kinds, there are other indicators of character that should be on the minds of all young people. Many faces can be read like a book. There are signals of warmth or kindness in the eyes of some. There may be body language that is uncomfortable. We can heighten student awareness of these signs without unduly setting them against strangers in general. There is a huge difference between discernment and discrimination.

2. Predicting the Next Move

Students at the middle school and high school level can be asked to share stories of sports activities and times when they have correctly predicted the next move of an opponent. In tennis, basketball, soccer and a number of sports, the ability to make such predictions contributes in a major way to success. Some call it "court sense" - an awareness of what is happening, what is about to happen and how the player might fit into the flow or counter the flow. Tennis Pro Ron Waite writes of "the importance of anticipation and the need to disguise/vary one’s game."

Imagine that you could actually predict where the opponent was going to hit every shot! You would be one step quicker, one second early in your preparation and one thought ahead on where to place your next shot. These would prove to be invaluable assets…no?
Source: Turbo Tennis at

Waite goes into considerable detail explaining how he will scout an opponent in advance of play in order to figure out his "give-way cues." He is also looking for patterns of play. His article might be a good introduction for students to think about their own sports or the teacher might ask them to identify similar articles for their sports.

Studies across a number of sports indicate the importance of anticipation. "Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players" concluded:

Results suggest that achieving excellence in sports may be related to the fine-tuning of specific anticipatory 'resonance' mechanisms that endow elite athletes' brains with the ability to predict others' actions ahead of their realization.
Nature Neuroscience 11, 1109 - 1116 (2008) Aglioti et al.

In his "Enhancing Anticipation in Soccer Players," Joseph Breault outlines a program to strengthen "anticipation and "Game Intelligence."

Performance Assessment for Field Sports devotes several pages to anticipation and decision-making skills, reporting the results of studies that seek to train field hockey goalies and others.

3. Sizing Up a Situation

Sometimes we feel uncomfortable about a decision or an event that is on the horizon. This discomfort may actually take a physical form - as a pain in the gut or some other symptom of apprehension. Often this apprehension results from our brain processing information in a manner that is close to instinctual. There is something awry (related words = askew, crooked, lopsided, tilted, skewed, skew, to one side, off-center, uneven; informal cockeyed, wonky). We have seen something and recognized that it is not quite right, but our conscious, analytical mind is not so involved as the part of our brain that notices patterns visually. It is less about concepts than mood, balance and tone.

The ability to size up a situation, as mentioned earlier, is often related to experience in a field, with the novice usually having less success than the veteran, but your students, young as they are, will probably have had some experience with these premonitions and should be asked to share stories. Perhaps the premonition came before a test in school or a family holiday dinner? In addition to remembering such events, challenge them to consider whether or not they were able to take advantage of the premonition. Was it a completely ungrounded hunch or was there some basis in fact - signals and cues that could be read?

The goal of such activities is to sharpen students' awareness of intuitive insights while helping them to differentiate between gut feelings and more substantial and reliable ways of knowing and understanding.

4. Recognizing Types of Intuitive Thinking

The most reliable and grounded source I consulted in preparing to write this article is Intuition: Its Powers and Perils by David G. Myers ( Yale University Press, 2000). There are sections of this book that would make great reading for older students. In his chapter on Intuitive Expertise and Creativity, Myers, who is an experimental psychologist, outlines several categories of intuitive thinking and does an excellent job of illustrating how they operate for thinkers and performers like chess players and basketball stars. Having completed the exercise above about "reading a court," students will enjoy passages like the following:

As Michael Jordan would shoot a basketball, he unconsciously and instantly made complex calculations about force, motion, gravitational effects, parabolic curves, and aerodynamic drag. He knew how to read the complex motions of nine other players and to intuit where to go and when, and to whom to deliver the ball. (Page 58)

Myers looks at the following aspects of intuition in this chapter:

  • Intuitive Expertise - He further divides this category into Learned Expertise and Tacit Knowledge.
  • Creativity - He summarizes the work of Sternberg and Lubart in Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, their five components of creativity:
    • Expertise
    • Imaginative Thinking Skills
    • Venturesome Personality
    • Intrinsic Motivation
    • Creative Environment

This article argues that making students aware of these elements also can empower them to develop their own intuitive powers.

Testing and Balancing Intuitions against Other Thinking

Those who make decisions without considering intuition are handicapped, but the same could be said of those who rely too fully on intuitions without bringing other types of thinking into the mix.

"Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough." Robert Heller

It might help if our students could visualize decision-making as a process that involves something like a mental console. They are familiar with the controls that come with sound systems allowing one to turn up the bass or reduce the treble, to fade, to mix, and to synchronize. Just as a DJ mixes songs and tracks, the decision maker must take advantage of insight along with the more logical decision-making models that abound.

Cli ck here for an image of the DJ Mix 2000 USB Console by NTI Comodo.

In striving for the balance suggested here, it helps if students are aware of what Myers calls the "perils" of intuitive thinking. In contrast to some fans of intuition, he laces each chapter with examples of when intuition can lead us astray. Students armed with a list of these perils have a better chance of achieving a balanced approach than those who step through life blissfully ignorant of these perils.

In his chapter, "Intuitions about our Competence and Virtue," for example, Myers explores three issues:

  • Hindsight Bias
  • Self-serving Bias
  • The Overconfidence Syndrome

He quotes Artemus Ward as saying . . . "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so."

Myers' book would make an excellent text for secondary students wishing to find the balance mentioned in this article.

Teachers may introduce students to one of many creative problem-solving models available online or in book form and help them to see when and how intuition might enrich the process. In the model below, for example, teams often rush the first three stages and end up dealing with symptoms rather than causes. They also fail to generate a rich list of options and possibilities. Intuition can help find out what is really going on below the surface and can help fuel an inventive process.

Stages of Problem-Solving

Define Problem
Gather Data & Explore Possibilities
Invent Options
Evaluate Options
Create a Plan


The innovative strategies suggested in the books of Roger von Oech such as A Whack on the Side of the Head (New York, Warner Books, 1998) involve freeing the mind to play with the insights that can emerge when intuition is unleashed.

von Oech provides activities to unlock the mental locks that block innovative thinking. He offers strategies to inspire and support dynamic thinking.

Order A Whack on the Side of the Head from Amazon.


Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books, 2005) (purchase from Amazon)

Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity by Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart (Free Press, 1999) (purchase from Amazon)

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils by David G. Myers (Yale University Press, 2004) (purchase from Amazon)


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