Your road to self-empowerment

The Science of Intuition. Should We Rely on Ourselves?

December 4, 2022.Merijn Duchatteau

How to decide on what doors to go through in life.

“The two operations of our understanding, intuition, and deduction, on which alone we have said we must rely in the acquisition of knowledge.”

Rene Descartes

Last month, a colleague of mine went on a trip to France. On her own. In the middle of nature. To do a silent retreat with a bunch of strangers for a week. And something happened to her. We both work in management consulting. That generally means long work weeks, many deadlines, and high expectations of speed and quality.  In this context, this woman was admired by her colleagues. She was great at her job, ambitious, social, and an amazing leader. But when she returned from her trip, she wasn’t the same.“I’m quitting”, she said. She explained that she had no plan for maintaining her income and had no idea what she wanted to do instead. So I asked her why she decided to quit.“I’m not sure. My heart is just telling me it’s the right time.”

What Is Intuition And Should We Trust It?

For some, intuition is a higher power that acts as a guardian angel by sending us messages that help us to stay on the right path. To others, it’s made-up nonsense by people who are seeking an excuse to do something that doesn’t really make sense.

Intuition is often our scapegoat for why we strongly dislike that new colleague that we’ve only talked to for 60 seconds, why we prefer to go to restaurant #1 instead of restaurant #2 even though they seem nearly identical, or why we feel it’s time for us to end our relationship.

A quick look into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us that intuition is “the power of attaining direct knowledge without evident rational thought and inference.” It’s a gut feeling that we can’t really explain. Yet many of us rely on it when making decisions. So how does this gut feeling come to exist?

Where Our Intuition Comes From, According to Science

Our intuitive feelings don’t just pop up out of thin air. We may not always be conscious of the information that shapes our intuition, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there.

There seem to be two main ways that intuitive feelings are formed.

  1. Past Experiences Provide Us With Knowledge, but We Often Forget About Them

Research shows that our intuition is formed based on our past experiences. However, it wouldn’t be ‘intuition’ if we consciously used this information to make our decisions. We only call it intuition once we rely on experiences from the past, without us knowing that we’re relying on experiences from the past. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say you had a friend when you were young. Barry. Barry had blonde, short hair, blue eyes and would always wear the same white shirt with a stain on it. He went to the same school as you.

Barry always talked to you when he saw you, he asked if he could walk you home all of the time and he would lend you his pens when you forgot them. Later, Barry confessed his deep love to you. You didn’t really like Barry that much so you rejected him. But you felt really bad doing so.

Years later, you’ve forgotten about Barry and you’re in a happy relationship. You meet a new co-worker called James. One day, you forgot your lunch and James offered you his. After a few weeks, James says he’s going the same way as you after work and asks if you’d like to walk home together.

For some reason, your gut was telling you something was off. You told James you’d rather walk alone, after which he confessed that he finds you very attractive. Your gut feeling got confirmed and you told him you were in a relationship, after which you left.

As we move through life, we gain experiences. Many of which we don’t consciously think of ever again. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone. Our brain processes these experiences and stores the information somewhere deep in our subconscious, just in case it might help us in the future. Later on, this can help us to choose between Door A or Door B when it comes to our happiness; whether it’s about relationships, work, hobbies, or anything else. And if this process happens subconsciously, it’s what we call ‘intuition’.


  1. There’s Information Around Us That We Don’t Process Consciously, but Still Use in Our Decision-Making

Besides past, conscious experiences that we’ve forgotten about, intuition can also be built on information that we’ve never experienced consciously. Just because we don’t experience something consciously does not mean that our brain hasn’t picked up on it. Nor does it mean that it doesn’t influence how we feel or think.

In one study, Hassin and his colleagues presented participants with a math equation, such as “9–5–3”. The caveat was that they presented it in such a way that participants weren’t consciously seeing it by using a technique called “Continuous Flash Suppression”.

Shortly after, the participants saw a number. This time consciously. This number was either the ‘right’ answer to the equation or the wrong answer to the equation. Results of the study show that participants were significantly faster in responding to the number when it was the right answer to the equation (that they didn’t see consciously) compared to when it was the wrong answer. The researchers say this indicates that the equation had already been processed by their minds, even though they weren’t conscious of it.

In other words, our brain is processing stimuli for us in the background. Meaning that you may intuitively dislike that new colleague so much because you’ve subconsciously picked up on their negative body language or any other warning signs.

Another study shows that our body subconsciously may know more than we think — going as far as suggesting that our hearts may be able to look into the future and send us signals ahead of time.

2 groups of participants were shown 2 sets of images. One group looked at neutral images (e.g, fruit), while the other looked at emotionally invoking images (e.g., scary or sexual images). Researchers then measured the heart and brain activity of the participants.

Results show that the hearts of participants who looked at emotionally invoking images were showing a response up to 6 seconds before the brain registered the images while the participants of the neutral group did not show this pattern. Dr. Rollin McCraty of Heartmath said that this is “evidence that the heart is directly involved with the processing of information about a future emotional stimulus seconds before the body actually experiences the stimulus.”

One might conclude that our “intuition” is our body’s way to prepare us for what’s to come because it already knows what’s next.

The Dangers of Relying on Our 6th Sense

Intuition sounds great when you read the studies above. Almost like a magical power helping us when we need it. But it’s not that simple. Subconscious information may not always have your best interest at heart.

When we rely on subconscious information to steer us, it’s important that the information actually helps us. But that’s not always the case. In one study, psychologists used what they call ‘priming’ to influence people’s ‘intuition’. Priming is using certain stimuli to influence people’s decisions without them being aware of it.

For this study, researchers played music from a specific country (France or Germany) in a supermarket. They then measured how much wine was sold, along with which type. Specifically, they had a look at how much French wine versus how much German wine was bought, while both wines had the same label and price.

The result? On days where French music was played, 77% of the wine sold was French. On days where German music was played, 73% of the wine sold was German. Meaning, people were 3 to 4 times more likely to buy a wine that matched the music in the store. This occurred without participants being aware of it, as shoppers were tested afterward to see if they felt the music had any influence on their choices. This was not the case.

These shoppers may have felt like they were in control. Like their intuition was telling them to buy either French or German wine. But in reality, they were influenced by their environment without them realizing it. And it wasn’t necessarily in their best interest.

In another experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger through a cup of coffee. On their way to the experiment, a confederate bumped into the participant. They dropped some of their stuff and when they went to pick it up, they asked the participant to hold their cup of coffee. In one condition, the coffee that participants had to hold was ice cold, while it was very warm in the other condition.

Afterward, each participant had to assess the character of a hypothetical person based on a small text. The participants that just held iced coffee rated this person as being much colder, less social, and more selfish in comparison with the participants that held warm coffee even though the description of the person was the same.

This isn’t a one-off. It’s what’s referred to in psychology as embodied cognition: the idea that influencing our body also influences our mind. Similar results have been found with a smell of citrus leading to more cleaning behavior and sitting on a hard chair leading to more rigid negotiations versus sitting in a comfortable chair.

Lastly, while our experiences may be good input for our intuition, they may not always be relevant in our current context. Certain context variables may be different which renders our previous experiences useless. Or we may have had only a few similar experiences, which doesn’t mean that those situations will always play out as they did in the past.

Concluding — How to Use Your Intuition Effectively

Based on the research above, intuition can guide us effectively in situations where we’re not sure what to do. However, it can also cause us harm. Below are 3 tips to use your intuition effectively.

1. Use Your Intuition Mainly When You Have Experience in a Similar Context

Deciding on a vacation destination but you’ve never been traveling before? Best to lay off the intuition and do some rational research. The more limited our experience is in a given situation, the less likely our intuition is to be right because it doesn’t have much information to go on. When deciding whether to trust your intuition or not, reflect on how much experience you have in similar contexts and decide whether you should trust yourself.

2. Don’t Use Intuition in Moments of High Emotion

To use intuition effectively, we must use the available information as objectively as we can. Even if this is happening subconsciously. Otherwise, we may start making irrational decisions such as buying a certain brand of wine based on the music that is playing.

Researchers have argued that effectively tapping into subconscious information requires us to be in a calm or neutral mood, as it’s documented that emotional people have more difficulties making decisions.

3. Don’t Let Intuition Overrule Statistics

If there’s a very small chance of something happening, then we should realize that our intuition is very susceptible to bias and use our rational mind to overrule intuitive thoughts. Even if our intuition is telling us something, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to overrule hard statistics in the form of chance. Hence, we should only trust our instinct when the chances of an outcome are realistic in practice.