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How to know when your intuition is bad

Intuition is a double-edged sword because sometimes it’s actually bias.

How to know when your intuition is bad
[Photo: Flickr user Justin Ladia]

Listening to your gut can often be a source of good information. The information we receive comes from the subconscious, and when patterns make sense we make connections that can come as an insight, says Jonah Sachs, author of Unsafe Thinking: How To Be Nimble and Bold When You Need It the Most.

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“It’s often a source of greatest knowing,” he says. “If you’re in a chess match, for example, and you’ve played for dozens of years, your master intuition is incredibly sharp. You can recognize patterns without being able to articulate them, and you can destroy a novice who has to analyze the board. Intuition separates great leaders from those who are mid level.”

But intuition is a double-edged sword because sometimes it’s actually bias. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores the idea that bias is indistinguishable from intuition, says Sachs.

“We think we know, but are we knowing because we recognize a special pattern or is it more of, ‘Hey, that person looks like me or talks like me, so their idea must be good’?” he says. “Sometimes sources look good because they look familiar. You need to decide if it’s bias dressed as intuitive insight.”

This is especially prevalent in the world of venture capital. A Silicon Valley investor will look at a business plan, the market, and outside data, but will often make a decision based on gut feelings about the entrepreneur, says Sachs. “That’s why [male entrepreneurs] get $34 for every $1 that women [entrepreneurs] get,” he says. “That’s an example of intuitive insight becoming biased thinking. When confronted, investors are interested but chose not to change because they didn’t want to leave what they perceive as intuition behind.”

How to distinguish bias from intuition

Intuition is like genius insight that belongs at the front of the line of our consideration, but we shouldn’t blindly follow it. “Put it up to testing and validation as much as another idea,” says Sachs. “Look for evidence that the idea might be wrong. If you can’t find that evidence, it might be right.”

Ask yourself where the intuition might be coming from. “Does this look like something I’ve seen before?” asks Sachs. “If so, it’s a warning sign that it’s not intuition, but bias thinking.”

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Finally, try to understand where the intuition was educated. “The environment should have as much feedback as possible,” says Sachs. “Chess is a great example, because you get feedback on decisions quickly, and you can learn to trust your intuition. Venture capital takes a long time to gather information with a lot of factors. You should be more suspicious of your intuition in that case because there’s more to question.”

Challenge your bias

To challenge your bias and improve your intuition, look to ideas that are counterintuitive, suggests Sachs. “That’s where you can find new markets and make buzz-worthy ideas if you can believe something’s true,” he says. “People who come up with most counterintuitive ideas expose themselves to different inputs.”

If you live in a foreign country, spending time with people who are different from you or look at different sets of data, things that will become obvious and intuitive to you will look counterintuitive to others, says Sachs. “It’s not opposite of intuition; it’s intuition from another angle,” he says.

You don’t have to leave home to expand your frame of reference. Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji changed her computer screensaver to flash images of people who counter stereotypes, such as short bald men who are executives, says Sachs. “What might such a screensaver that flashed images of successful women entrepreneurs be worth to venture investors who can’t quite intuitively grasp that many women make excellent company founders?” asks Sachs.

If we’re always exposed to the same kind of information, we’re always confirming our intuition, says Sachs. “Expose yourself to different environments,” he suggests. “You might see your bias break down or your intuition get better. Expanding the quality and diversity of things you take in sharpens intuition and keeps you out of dead and obvious thinking.”

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