Why Intuition Is an Essential Decision-Making Tool

Making decisions using pure analysis doesn't always work.

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A Q&A with Gary Klein, Ph.D., author of “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.”

Thrive Global: What does science tell us about the importance of intuition in our decision-making process?
Gary Klein: Intuition is essential, particularly under pressure and when faced with uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. The notion of making decisions using pure analysis just doesn’t work. In fact, Antonio Damasio, a renowned neuroscientist, shows what happens when people suffer brain lesions that disconnect their decision processes from their intuition — they become very unsuccessful. They lose their jobs, get divorced and have related difficulties. Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman and I wrote an article describing the conditions under which people can develop useful intuitions.

TG: When should we ‘trust our gut’ and when is it unreliable?
GK: We should never trust our gut. Wonderful as it is, our intuition can mislead us. We have to consciously examine our intuitions to see if they make sense. That said, we should never trust rational analysis either, because it can also mislead us. There are no easy roads to infallible decisions.

TG: How can we strengthen our intuition?
GK: One is to engage in cognitive After Action Reviews to learn what we can from failures and successes. Not just what we should have done but more importantly, what we were noticing, what we should have been attending to more carefully and how we were interpreting the data. We can perform these cognitive AARs on ourselves or on our colleagues and teammates. Second, we can use scenario-based training, such as the ShadowBox approach my colleagues and I have been developing for the past three years. Third, we can make better use of on-the-job learning, especially when confronted with challenging incidents, and also as a means for more experienced decision-makers to share their experience.

Sources Mentioned:
Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree.
American psychologist, 64(6), 515. https://emcrit.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Failure-to-Disagree.pdf
Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2010). Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut.
McKinsey Quarterly, 13, 1-10.

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