WHEN SHOULD I TRUST MY INTUITION?

Few issues are more divisive in psychology or in application in wider fields than that of whether there was any value in the concept of ‘intuition’ or its application to decision-making processes. 

This is not merely an academic debate but one which has profound implications as to the correct approach to decision making (and coaching) in many fields. Should the professional footballer who has practised penalty kicks many times deviate from the planned placement to the goalkeeper’s left side based on an intuition that the goalkeeper, this time, is going to anticipate the shot being placed to this side? Should the trader who was going to buy a holding based on analysis of fundamentals listen to an intuition that the general movement in the markets is troubling and might indicate delaying the trade is the best move at this time ? Should the poker player facing a large river bet just add up the pluses and minuses of factors relating to calling or folding and ignore the intuition that on this occasion, the opponent is bluffing ?

Part of the difficulty is in agreeing on the starting point :what  do we mean by intuition ? There is a real danger of slipping into magical thinking where intuition is interpreted as meaning little more than whatever the decision-maker feels like in any given situation on the assumption that those feelings are a reliable compass to the best decision: a woo-woo concept akin to ‘The Force’ in the Star Wars films.

As psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, the idea that humans always make rational, optimal decisions is an illusion. In reality, humans are riddled with irrational cognitive biases, which frequently drive them towards the wrong decisions. From the view of my own experience both as a coach and  player in decision-making professions, emotions can not merely cloud decision-making processes but can be the driver of errors .

However, to dismiss the idea of intuition altogether on this basis is to deconstruct a straw man . As Kahneman himself acknowledges, a more sophisticated understanding and definition of intuition is one that allows for the fact that experts can develop such a deep knowledge and experience of their field that they can immediately analyse a situation without recourse to a slow, conscious checking of factors that may be required by others who have not acquired the same degree of understanding. As the Nobel Prize-winning cognitive psychologist and economist Herbert Simon said:
‘The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in the memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.’

Those who would seek to deny the value of intuition may seek to use this quote to argue in favour of systems of decision-making that assemble lists of factors and attach values to those factors to come to the correct decision. I have in trading, poker and sport seen individuals and coaches create systems that seek to solve perceived decision-making shortcomings by imposing systems for decision-making. These can certainly have value as part of the learning process and even ‘in game’. This is a better approach than uncritically relying on ‘feel’ to make decisions when the individual has not acquired the core level of knowledge, experience, and self-awareness of potential cognitive biases to make an optimal decision.

However, to deny the value of informed intuition is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Kahneman himself cited with approval a study of firefighters, noting commanders who were able to make instant decisions without comparing options and a firefighter who had a sudden urge to escape a burning house just before it collapsed because he sensed the danger intuitively.

After all, the most powerful form of decision-making validated by the science of modern psychology is the flow state. Flow states are at odds with a laboured mechanical decision-making process. The modern Godfather of flow science, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, identified features of a flow state as including effortlessness, with decisions arising freely from the demands of the activity without the need for mechanical rumination. Another feature is a state of relaxation, a feeling of ‘control without controlling’.

Think of the best in the world in diverse fields, from the courtroom lawyer marshalling arguments in a closing submission to the world class-striker finishing in a one on one situation with a goalkeeper in professional soccer, and these features can be observed. What we see in these world class performers is a sense of ease deriving from complete self-trust; Imposing a mechanical mental checklist on these performers before they execute their decisions would be hugely sub-optimal. This would often cause the problem of overthinking: paralysis by analysis. Any coaching or system which seeks to impose a mechanical framework as optimal is a self-denying ordinance, frustrating flow, the peak of human decision-making.

So what is the best approach to achieving optimal decision-making?

1. There is no substitute for acquiring a high level of technical skills, knowledge and experience in your chosen field. The self-trust and ease of flow states are built on a reliable foundation. This requires a structured program of training and ‘doing the reps’ in practice. Without this, saying you are acting on ‘intuition’ – or you are a ‘feel player’ is just lazy BS. Without the core skills, you do not get to pass ‘Go’ in terms of accessing intuition which, properly understood, is a high-level decision making skill.

2. Obtain expert insight into how emotions, cognitive biases and detrimental mental programs may interfere with your decision making processes. This means seeking external help because the very nature of our own cognitive errors is that we cannot see them, and we think our own thought processes are rational.

3. Resolve those cognitive errors through appropriate training. The ideal is a program that addresses the issues at 3 levels: the conscious (addressing sub-optimal patterns and thoughts at a logical level), mechanical (putting in place practical mechanisms to encourage better approaches) and subconscious (retraining neural pathways which have ingrained sub-optimal habits and thought processes). For the latter, hypnotherapy is a uniquely powerful model of coaching because it addresses the subconscious, which acts more quickly than the conscious mind and can often take over in the moments of the highest pressure.

4. Having achieved steps 1-3, apply scientifically validated flow triggers that allow the individual to regularly access flow states in which they can make decisions freely based on justifiable self-trust.

 My own program systematically applies steps 2 through 4. These are scientifically validated trainable skills which can be reproduced to a level of consistency that self-experimentation or just hoping for the best cannot hope to match.

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