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Imagine the director of a large company announcing an important decision and justifying it with a hunch or a premonition.
Surely he would have to face an unbelieving public. But do important decisions always have to be thought through carefully, deliberately and rationally?
The truth is that trusting your intuition generally has a bad reputation, especially in the western part of the world where analytical thinking has been constantly encouraged in recent decades.
Little by little, many have assumed that humans go from being dependent on a primitive, magical and religious thought to analytical and scientific thinking.
As a result, they see emotions and intuition as tools that can fail or cheat. However, this attitude is based on a myth of cognitive progress.
Emotions are not always foolish responses that must be ignored or corrected by rational abilities. Intuition or hunches are also the result of a large amount of processing that occurs in the brain.
Studies suggest that the brain is a great prediction machine, which constantly compares incoming sensory information and current experiences with stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, predicting what will come next.
This fits into what scientists call the “predictive processing framework.”
This ensures that the brain is always prepared to face the current situation in the best possible way. When an imbalance occurs (something that was not predicted), our brain updates its cognitive models.
This coincidence between previous models (based on past experiences) and current experience occurs automatically and unconsciously.
The importance of experience
Intuitions occur when the brain has established a significant coincidence or mismatch (between the cognitive model and current experience), but this has not yet reached your conscious awareness.
For example, you may be driving on a rural road when you suddenly have the intuition to drive further to the edge of the road.
You keep driving and you see that you have just dodged a big pothole that could have damaged your car. You’re glad you trusted your instinct, even without knowing where it came from.
Actually, the vehicle that was a long way ahead of you made a similar movement on the road (since they are local people and know the way), and you noticed it without consciously registering it.
When you have a lot of experience in a specific area, the brain has more information to match the current experience and this makes your intuitions more reliable.
This means that, just as with creativity, your intuition can improve thanks to experience.
Intuitive thinking is described as automatic, rapid and subconscious. Analytical thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, conscious and deliberate.
Many believe that this division determines that the two types of processing (or “styles of thought”) are opposite.
However, recent research showed that analytical and intuitive thinking can happen at the same time.
In fact, the two styles of thinking are complementary, they can work as a team and often we use them together.
Even scientific research can start with an intuitive knowledge that allows scientists to formulate innovative ideas and hypotheses, and then they can be validated through rigorous testing and analysis.
Disadvantages of analytical thinking
Moreover, although it is believed that intuition is careless and inaccurate, analytical thinking can also be harmful.
Studies have shown that excessive thinking can seriously hamper our decision-making process.
In other cases, analytical thinking may simply consist of post hoc justifications or rationalizations of decisions based on intuitive thinking.
This happens, for example, when we have to explain our decisions about moral dilemmas. This has led some people to refer to analytical thinking as the “press secretary” or the “inner lawyer” of intuition.
We often do not know why we make decisions, but we want to have reasons to do so .
So, should we trust our intuition, since it helps our decision making? The answer is complicated.
Because intuition is based on an evolutionarily older, automatic and rapid processing, it is also a victim of errors such as cognitive biases.
Similarly, since fast processing is old, it can sometimes be a little outdated.
Think, for example, of a donut dish. While we may be tempted to eat all of them, it is unlikely that we need that large amount of sugars and fats. However, in hunter-gatherer times, stocking up on energy would have been a wise instinct.
Therefore, for each situation that involves a decision based on our evaluation, we must consider whether our intuition has evaluated the situation correctly.
If it is evolutionarily old, implies a cognitive bias and we have no experience, then we must rely on analytical thinking. Otherwise, we should not hesitate to trust our intuitive thinking.
It’s time to stop the witch hunt against intuition and see it as it is: a fast and automatic subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analysis can not.
We need to accept, in short, that intuitive and analytical thinking must work together, and contrast each other when making difficult decisions.