The Nuance

The Science Behind Gut Feelings

Intuition is real and measurable, but often misleading

Kieran Blakey for Elemental

Intuition is a tough thing to study. Even defining it is tricky. It’s not quite an insight, which is when a solution or some other bit of hoped-for knowledge pops into your head. It’s more like a sixth sense or a feeling — an inclination that you can’t really explain but that seems trustworthy.

Some ingenious researchers have found ways to both capture human intuition and also shed light on its inner workings.

For a 2016 study in Nature Scientific Reports, a team of Italian scientists filmed a series of short videos. In each of the videos, an unidentified person grasps a half-full bottle of water with the intention of either drinking from it or pouring its contents into a glass.

Next, the researchers had people watch one-second clips cut from the original videos. Each of the clips ends the moment the unidentified person’s fingers touch the bottle. The people who watched the videos tried to predict whether the person in the video was going to drink from the bottle or pour out its contents. Remarkably, their predictions were accurate far above the level of mere chance. Just by seeing a hand reach for a bottle, they were able to intuit what would happen next.

“People were definitely surprised by their accuracy,” says Cristina Becchio, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a professor of psychology at the Italian Institute of Technology. “After the experiment, participants often reported they were just guessing.” Even when people tried to explain their accurate guess, Becchio says their explanations were inconsistent and tended to involve unhelpful visual cues.

Human knowledge is a vast and shadowy landscape; much of what a person “knows” seems to sprout from the dark places. More and more, researchers are finding that intuitions and other apparently uncanny sources of knowledge can be tied to hidden processes in the brain.

“Intuition can get at that deep-seated knowledge that we can’t consciously disentangle.”

“People are able to see and recognize patterns that can help them make decisions or form judgments, and a lot of this recognition is outside of conscious awareness,” says Michael Pratt, PhD, an intuition researcher and professor of organizational studies at Boston College.

While the idea of knowledge lying “outside of conscious awareness” can sound like Freudian pseudoscience, Pratt says that the brain is constantly sensing, observing, interpreting, and performing other forms of helpful “non-conscious” work. In fact, some neuroscientists have argued that consciousness likely represents a very small fraction of the brain’s output.

“Intuition,” Pratt says, “can get at that deep-seated knowledge that we can’t consciously disentangle.”

How intuition works

In the video-clip study, Becchio and her coauthors explain that many of the same action-oriented brain neurons and pathways light up regardless of whether a person is performing an action or merely observing someone else perform it. It’s as though a part of the observer’s brain is acting out what it’s witnessing. This is sometimes called the brain’s “mirror system,” they write. And when a person sees a hand grasping a bottle, neurons and pathways activated by this mirror system may help that person intuit the bottle-grasper’s intentions.

Becchio says that this is likely just one of the many ways in which the brain makes predictions or forms intuitions based on information that lies outside of a person’s conscious awareness.

Pratt, the Boston College professor, has spent a lot of time working with firefighters — an occupation that requires split-second decisions that have life-or-death consequences. “I’ll talk to a firefighter who left a burning house a minute before the floor collapsed,” he says. “I’ll ask them how they knew to leave — how they got to that decision — and they usually say their gut told them to leave.”

This gut feeling, he says, likely comes from a mixture of non-conscious sensory perceptions and past experiences. Every time that firefighter stepped inside a burning building, a part of the firefighter’s brain was paying attention to sounds, smells, smoke drift, and other sensory information, while at the same time learning to connect this information with good or bad outcomes. While all of this was going on outside of the firefighter’s conscious awareness, it was nonetheless contributing to that firefighter’s ability to “feel” when a floor might collapse.

Pratt says that when people make decisions, they tend to believe that there’s an inverse relationship between accuracy and speed. “We want to muse on a problem and sort through all the data,” he says. And in many situations — especially those in which a problem has an objectively correct answer — data-driven deliberation is the best way to come up with a solution.

“I’ll talk to a firefighter who left a burning house a minute before the floor collapsed. I’ll ask them how they knew to leave — how they got to that decision — and they usually say their gut told them to leave.”

But when a person is faced with “judgment calls” — basically, decisions in which there are multiple choices and many shades of right or wrong — intuition can help a person come to a decision that is both quick and accurate, he says.

When to trust your intuition

Pratt’s work has explored the circumstances or conditions in which intuition tends to be on the money. “First, you need domain-relevant experience,” he says.

A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2008 involved abbreviated videos of basketball players shooting free throws. Even before the ball left the player’s hands, professional basketball players who watched the videos could often predict whether the shot would go in. Their predictions tended to be much more accurate than the predictions of non-players. In other words, their experience informed their intuitions.

Pratt says that most sports, including chess, involve this sort of intuition borne of experience. Just as a quarterback learns to “feel” pressure from would-be tacklers, a master chess player is able to intuit a correct move without cycling through all the possible outcomes in her head. “If you play enough, you get a sense of what will work and what won’t,” he says.

Along with experience, he says that quick, accurate, and consequential feedback is an essential ingredient when forming reliable intuitions.

To illustrate this point, he compares the work of a clinical psychologist to the work of a surgeon. “If a surgeon makes the wrong cut, blood squirts out,” he says. This kind of feedback is immediate, unambiguous, and directly linked to patient outcomes, and so over time it can help surgeons develop very good intuitions about how to perform their work. “But if you’re a clinical psychologist and a patient stops coming to you, that could be because they got better or they got worse, which could be because of you or because of something else,” he says. “The feedback you’re getting is not immediate or reliable, and so your intuitions can be off.”

While these sorts of guidelines can be instructive, the biggest takeaway from the intuition research seems to be that gut feelings are wrong as often as they’re right — and that they tend to be right in those spur-of-the-moment situations when a lot of dithering or data analysis isn’t really possible.

Pratt mentions the glut of misinformation now floating around the internet. He also talks about how social-media sites and other information repositories — by funneling people into “echo chambers” populated by like-minded people and content — can influence a person’s experiences and therefore mislead their intuitions.

“Bad information in, bad information out,” he says. “If you don’t have domain-relevant experience or if you haven’t learned in the right kind of environment, your intuitions are not going to be reliable.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store