By Eric Barker
November 14, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

You’re really good at what you do and you’ve been doing it a long time. You’ve got a hunch about this big problem you’re facing…

Should you trust it? All those smarty-pants books (and smarty-pants blogs, for that matter) are telling you to be rational. Use this or that fancy logical system. Or a framework developed by the really smart professor at the prestigious University of Wherever.

But your Spidey-Sense is tingling. There’s a disturbance in The Force. This hunch just feels right… Should you trust your intuition? Or when should you trust your intuition? (And, um, what is intuition anyway?)

Gary Klein decided to study the subject. And not just in some sterile lab with a bunch of 19 year-olds for subjects. For 30 years he’s looked at intuition as it was used in real-life difficult situations by everyone from firefighters to chess masters.

He’s the author of a number of books on the subject, including The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work and Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making.

The US Marines, Army and Navy have all hired him to develop training programs for decision-making. In fact, he was one of the leaders of the team that redesigned the White House Situation Room.

We’re going to learn a lot of surprising things about intuition and how to make good decisions including: when logic is a bad idea, why jumping to conclusions can be a very smart choice, and why you might want to make more mistakes. Let’s get to it…

What The Heck Is Intuition Anyway?

No, it’s not ESP and it’s not magic. And you shouldn’t rely on it in areas where you don’t have a solid base of experience.

Intuition is the patterns you unconsciously notice in your field of expertise. When you see a particular set of cues, you recognize that this is an X, not a Y. And knowing it’s an X let’s you make a judgment and respond with the right set of actions.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

And if you’re good at what you do, you should be relying on intuition more, not less. Leveraging intuition isn’t lazy — it’s the hallmark of experts.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

Now rationally and deliberately processing all the potential possibilities is powerful too, and that’s why when you’re making a left turn in your car — a potentially lethal endeavor — you always take the time to consider every single…

No, you don’t. You just use your intuition.

(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

But hold on now. Maybe you just read an article about that fancy logical method for improving decision-making. I mean, they even teach it at top business schools! That’s gotta be better than going with your gut… right?

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

Your Rational System Shall Not Defeat My Intuitive Kung Fu

So you use the cool system-of-the-month for making decisions. Maybe you list out all the relevant criteria in an Excel spreadsheet. You score all the factors from 1 to 10 so they’re properly weighted. It’s logical, rational and systematic. There’s just one little problem…

Research shows those systems don’t work in the real world.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

In fact, Klein cites studies showing these systems can actually produce decisions that are worse than you would have come up with otherwise. Why?

Because they interfere with your intuition.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

Think for a second: how did you go about defining the problem to use in that system? How did you come up with those numerical values to weight each factor?

Yeah. You used your intuition. No doubt, you need both rational decision making and intuition in your mental toolbox. But studies show when you ignore your intuition, decision quality drops.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

But why? Because neuroscience. Your brain can’t make good decisions without emotions.

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at USC. He did an experiment using decks of cards, first with students and then again with people who had suffered damage to the ventromedial sector of their prefrontal cortex.

Students played a game where they drew cards from 4 decks and received monetary rewards or penalties depending on the cards selected. What they didn’t know was the decks were totally rigged. Some decks gave bigger rewards, others big penalties.

After playing for a while — but before they realized the trickery — the students started showing anxiety responses before drawing from the penalizing decks. Their intuition had noticed the pattern before their conscious mind was aware of it. Emotions can help you make better decisions, even when you don’t consciously know what’s going on.

And what about the group that suffered from brain damage? They never showed anxiety. Ignoring your intuition is like being brain damaged. Literally.

(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, but certainly there are times when logic and math triumph. What about Moneyball? Scouts used to go by intuition alone and they were terrible at picking baseball players compared to algorithms. No doubt.

So when is the best time to use intuition and when should we be all Spock-like and rational?

Puzzles Vs. Mysteries

Baseball is a game of stats. It’s a clear system with clear answers. When answers are that straightforward, lead with logic.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

A good distinction you should use here is between “puzzles” and “mysteries.”

“Where is Eric right now?” is a puzzle. It has a clear, definitive answer. If you hacked the GPS on my phone, boom, you’d know.

“Where will Eric be Thursday at 2PM?” Now that’s a mystery. Even I don’t know the answer to that one. Nobody does.

If you’re trying to solve a puzzle, one piece of data can resolve the issue. If you’re dealing with a mystery, no amount of information will give you a definite answer. But in the modern world, we’ve become data junkies.

We think more information can solve all our problems. And that’s not the case. In fact, the more information you have the more confident you get, but once information exceeds a certain threshold the more your accuracy drops.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

Lots of information is hard to sort through, organize and evaluate. And when you’re dealing with a mystery, more info is never going to guarantee the right answer. So those rational systems break down. Guess what can fill the gap?

When we have lots of factors to consider, we do better when we’re actually prevented from thinking consciously. With complex decisions, intuition rules.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

So start with intuition. You can always use logical analysis later. But when we try to be rational first, it mucks with our intuition.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

And when you ignore you intuition, bad things can happen. On September 26, 1983 — the height of the Cold War — the Soviet early warning system went off. It said 5 US nuclear missiles were headed for Russia. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was supposed to launch a counterstrike as soon as that alarm went off. His nation was under attack…

But his intuition asked him a question: Why would the US start World War 3 by only launching five missiles? There was no way that would cripple the USSR’s ability to retaliate.

So he didn’t launch the counterstrike. And it turned out to be a false alarm. Sunlight reflecting off of clouds had been misinterpreted by the satellites as an attack.

Listening to his intuition prevented World War 3.

(To learn how to have more grit and resilience — from a Navy SEAL — click here.)

Okay, so you’re trying your intuition first. Good. What’s the best way to do that? Well, it’s going to sound like heresy…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Jump To Conclusions

I know, you’re “supposed to” generate lots of options and compare them. But if you’re good at what you do, that’s a bad idea. When Klein studied firefighters — who make life or death decisions — he guessed they would think of two options and compare them. He was wrong…

They didn’t compare any. What did his research team hear over and over again from different firefighters? “We don’t make decisions.” They went with their first thought. And it was usually right.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

Now novices should compare options — they don’t have experience to rely on. But experts can actually do themselves a disservice by overthinking. When radiologists look at x-rays for much more than 30 seconds, their decision-making gets worse.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)

So just always do the first thing that pops into your head? Sound extreme? Sound lazy? Hold on. That’s just part one…

Tell Yourself A Story

Yes, experts usually select one option and it’s usually right. But before they execute it, they run a “mental simulation.” They do a walkthrough in their head of what will happen if they act on the idea.

If it seems like it will work, jives with their experience, and they don’t see any problems, it’s go go go.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

(To learn the number one decision-making tip of samurai, astronauts and Navy SEALs, click here.)

So all of this intuition research hinges on you being very good at what you do. But what if you’re not? What if you’re new to a field? How do you build expertise and intuition?

Improve By Focusing On Understanding (And Screwing Up)

Intuition gets built by experience. So get exposed to as many decisions in your domain as possible.

From The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work:

And that can be accelerated the way any other skill is — by practice. Look at the most common decisions that get made. Review prior decisions and how they worked out. Talk to people who know more than you do.

All of that is pretty obvious. So what’s the secret that separates the people who develop expert intuition from someone who has merely memorized standard procedure?

Focus on understanding the underlying causes and effects. Look at the relationships between how things work. Dig for insights, don’t just collect data and follow the rules.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

Don’t worry about screwing up here and there. In fact, make sure to screw up. When you focus on reducing mistakes you limit your ability to build expertise. You need to try things and fail to really learn the patterns that produce intuition.

From Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making:

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

Do you have a gut instinct that we’re almost done here? Your intuition is right. Let’s round it all up…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Sum Up

Here’s how to master intuition:

  • Intuition is unconsciously noticing patterns that aid decision-making: Just because you can’t explain them doesn’t mean you should dismiss them. But only trust them if you’re experienced in the domain.
  • Formal rational systems often fail in the real world: Your brain can’t make decisions without emotions.
  • Puzzles vs mysteries: Puzzles have clear answers, so use rational processes. Mysteries don’t, so leverage intuition.
  • Jump to conclusions: Experts go with their first idea. And they’re usually right.
  • Tell yourself a story: Walk through what will likely happen before following through on your plan.
  • Improve by focusing on understanding (and screwing up): People with solid intuition don’t just look at data, they understand how all the moving parts relate. And if you’re not screwing up, you’re not learning.

Albert Einstein once said:

Did this not answer every single question you have? Did I not spell everything out as clearly as possible? Are you not sure exactly what step to take next? That’s okay.

You’ll just have to use your intuition.

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This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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