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Information and Intuition: How to Use Both as a Path to Success

I was recently asked what advice I would give my younger self if I were able, and I believe that answer is unequivocally to trust your gut. In today’s modern world where we hold a seemingly infinite amount of information in a small rectangle we keep in our pocket, it can be tricky to trust […]

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I was recently asked what advice I would give my younger self if I were able, and I believe that answer is unequivocally to trust your gut. In today’s modern world where we hold a seemingly infinite amount of information in a small rectangle we keep in our pocket, it can be tricky to trust decisions based on your body’s own process for interpreting the information around you, i.e. your gut. From hiring decisions, investments, even to dating, we live in a data-driven world where it seems all of life’s biggest decisions can be made on the basis of number-crunching algorithms.

We have a cultural bias towards quantifiable data, and while I’m not advocating by any means that you no longer use any sort of research when making decisions, it is ideal to strike a balance between blind trust in computer-generated reports and listening to the wealth of information conveyed through your gut feelings. Intuition is essentially data derived from your own body, and is the result of biological algorithms processing millions of data points from the world around you each day. In a survey of executives, over 50% said they believe they rely too much on data and analytics to make decisions and not enough on their own intuition.

What is intuition?

Intuition is defined psychologically as the “immediate understanding, knowledge, or awareness, derived neither from perception nor from reasoning.” It is the feeling that comes automatically from within you that often quickly motivates you to act. Intuition comes from the primitive brain from the early days of man when the brain’s ability to detect hidden dangers were paramount to our survival as a species.

In one study, participants were asked to play a card game where they pulled cards from two different decks. The decks were rigged so that one would “win” more often than the other, but the participants weren’t made aware of this fact. The participants on average had to draw about 50 cards to consciously realize the two decks were different, and it took them around 80 cards to figure out exactly what the difference was. However, at only 10 cards in, the participant’s palms began to start sweating slightly every time they reached for a card from the “losing” deck, and also began to subconsciously favor the “winning” deck. Even when they weren’t consciously aware of it yet, their intuition was telling them something wasn’t right about the situation they were in.

One of the challenges to developing your intuition is the cognitive bias concept of sunk costs. An easy way to visualize this is through what researchers from Yale, Harvard, and Duke termed “the IKEA effect.” If you’ve ever spent hours putting together an item of their furniture you may understand the concept, which is people overvaluing something because they put a lot of work into creating it. The concept of separating effort from results is something critical for leaders to keep in mind in order to make better decisions When you’ve put a lot of time and effort into research for a project, your effort creates a bias. In over-valuing the data you’ve gathered, you can lose sight of your intuition on the relevancy or necessity of what you’ve found.

In addition to intuition being an innate skill, it is also one that can be honed and developed with time. Once you have done so, it is applicable in almost any situation you find yourself in in life, from choosing a career path to making snap judgements under pressure. As a biopharmaceutical expert focusing on the marketing and distribution of drugs, I have utilized my intuition a multitude of times throughout my career when it came to making important decisions. Below are some of the ways you can work on developing your own intuition for business and life.

Become mindful of your body’s physical reactions

As I explained previously, the little physical signs your body gives off such as sweaty palms are the product of millions of years of evolution. Our intuition is our body’s way of signalling whether danger is present before our rational minds can explain it. The problem is, in our hyper-rational culture we often negate these warning bells our body gives us in favor of facts and figures. It is important to remember that the feedback your body provides can vary greatly from person to person. Some people may feel tense shoulders, others might get headaches or feel a tightening in the pit of their stomach that the term “gut feeling” comes from.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you need to make a decision, take a deep breath, slow down your thoughts, and pay attention to what your body is telling you. For instance, early in my career I was in charge of marketing a new weight loss drug that was the first of its kind. It was FDA approved and definitively had the ability to show results, but only on the condition that those who took it maintained a diet very low in fat, otherwise there were adverse gastrointestinal side effects. My company was excited about the idea of a weight loss drug that could guarantee results and wanted to market it to any and everybody looking to shed a couple pounds, but before we had proceeded too far I began to feel queasy, tight, and nauseated every time I thought of the marketing plan. I ended up pushing for a change in strategy, marketing the drug only to those who were struggling with obesity and therefore would be more willing to make the lifestyle changes required for the drug to be effective. By listening to what my body was telling me, I was able to keep my company from mistakenly marketing the drug to those who might have become angry or upset once they learned the caveats that came with losing the weight.

Recognize the human factor

When it comes to decision-making, it should ultimately be a married combination of information and intuition. By relying on data online, you dilute your ability to inject a human element into decisions and derive nuances that bring insight to data. Evaluations based solely on numbers leave one vital element out of the equation: the people involved in the process. Relying too definitively on data can turn you into a machine, something that won’t resonate with customers or co-workers. Your gut can help you and your business stay human. Just as you must learn to look inward and identify what your gut is telling you about yourself, you can also use this skill to observe those around you and intuitively identify what other people are thinking and feeling based on physical cues such as body language and tone of voice.

During the development and distribution of another drug, this time one that treated colorectal cancer, we were weeks away from the mass launch when we learned there was a biomarker that would enable doctors to identify ahead of time whether the treatment would have success on their patients. We had already spent countless hours working on this launch, and to disclose the biomarker would mean delaying it as well as plenty of new work to create materials and information for the doctors. Data showed that by continuing with the launch we would not have wasted any time and would be able to reach a wider breadth of people by letting the doctors try the drug on each patient rather than only use it on those who would show beneficial results, but my intuition told me we needed to pull back. I halted the launch, and we developed programs and educational materials for the doctors, making them aware of the biomarker before launching again. Because of this, we not only gained the doctors’ trust, but also saw a much better success rate.

Your gut gets better with time

Starting out, you might feel timid, and even a little bit embarrassed, about going with your gut. But with experience and data comes wisdom, and eventually you’ll become more confident in your abilities to trust your gut, and your conviction that others should as well. Remember that there is a science to your intuition, and while the exact mechanics may still be a mystery, there is definitely some sophisticated data crunching that is happening within us. Just remember that the best decisions are made when you use the information you have access to and the intuition your body is telling you.

Follow Carsten Thiel on Twitter and Medium.

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