The Power of Intuition

By: , Posted on: November 14, 2014

In a previous post it was argued that intuition can be defined as the contribution of unconscious brain activities to our process of making choices. By listening to our intuition we place value on our own unconscious impulses, which helps us to make healthy choices. Yet the question remains why our ratio, the pinnacle of evolution, can’t make choices by itself. That’s the subject of this post.

Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations - CoverExperiment

Ab Dijksterhuis (author of “The free will doesn’t exist”, 2007) formed two groups of students. All students had the same assignment: select the best of 12 apartments using different types of information (space, location, rent, view, condition, etc .). The was a wide range in relevance and pertinence within the type of information. From the 12 apartments available, there was a clear “winner”.

Intuition above ratio

Dijksterhuis manipulated the circumstances in such way that the members of one group had plenty time to make a choice (the so called rational group), whilst the members of the other group were disturbed during the process and could only decide in passing (the intuitive group). Eventually, the members of the intuitive group were more successful in selecting the best apartment

Apples and pears

The question is how it is possible that being in a position where it is possible to compile a list of pluses and minuses, fails to lead to a better outcome but even in fact to a worse one. Within the rational process it is difficult to compare apples with pears. Our logic works by comparing elements within the same pattern. To initiate this, information is first selected on a pattern (e.g. space or condition) before being processed further.

The power of the ratio,

If we have to make a choice within one pattern, we can perfectly well use our rational reasoning capacity. Even units that can be easily related to each other (rent and square footage) lend themselves to this process because we create a new unit (meter price). This type of choice is an easy one and can be solved rationally. Intuition is not needed here.

Incomparable and contradictory

Within complex choices we can rarely distinguish a uniform pattern. Usually we need to compare incomparable items (e.g. location and view). This comparison can’t simply be made in a rational way. Besides that, difficult choices often confront us with contradictions. An investor wants a good return with limited risk, a surgeon wants to remove the cancer completely without any damage to the surrounding tissue and a mechanic wants to complete his job safely but also be back home at the right time.


Moreover, our personal experience and judgment play a role in making decisions. Our individual taste judges whether something is beautiful or is appropriate in a particular situation. In the case of the example of the apartment choice, it is even possible to also distinguish a deeper layer.  Combining view and location of the apartments leads to a sense of social safety. This is typically a topic that is monitored by our instincts without any interference from our reasoning.


The lessons of evolution teach us that countless generations of our ancestors have survived despite difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. We owe our existence to the functioning of our instincts, which are fully dedicated to the survival of the human species. These instincts specialize in attuning us to balance between contradictions. They help us to avoid major risks (too dangerous), and to deal with minor risks (otherwise we can’t achieve anything). Depending on our own experience and the specific situation, we determine the severity of the risk we are willing to take. Such assessment, which are sometimes crucial for existence, can only be made on intuitive grounds.

Rely on intuition

In almost all our choices intuition is involved, whether it is in choosing a partner, a house, a job, or the way we are going to solve a problem. The main concern is that we live in a society in which intuitive choices are not appreciated. We are expected to explain why we do things. Due to the fact that most choices are made on an unconscious level, we are not able to give valid answers. Needing logical reasons, we come up with a socially acceptable story and we even start to believe in it. By doing this we deny our heritage and our strength: trust in our own intuition, which is a real pity.

Twists in our intuition

The lack of confidence in our intuition can be partly explained by the fact that we occasionally make the wrong choices. Then we think, “How could I have been so stupid.” This choice can be a result of a lack of intuition but also of twists in our intuition which can blur the process of choosing. In my next post I will discuss some of these twists and what we can do to combat them.

Read more posts from Juni on human behavior in hazardous situations:

About the Author

Jan DaalmansJuni Daalmans is author of Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations and works for the Daalmans Organizational Development Office. Save 30% on your very own copy of Juni’s book. Just enter “SAVE3013” at checkout.

He regularly posts to his blog Brain Based Safety and can be found on twitter @BrainBasedSafet.

Connect with us on social media and stay up to date on new articles

Physical Security & Emergency Management

The advent of the 21st century has brought with it a paradigm shift in approaches to physical security worldwide. In security management and homeland security, as well as in emergency management, mandates for securing people and property are constantly multiplying, leading to new organizations and infrastructures at every level, both public and private. These efforts both drive and depend on security techniques and technologies. Elsevier’s robust collection of physical security resources, such as our Butterworth-Heinemann imprint and our collaboration with the Security Executive Council, encompasses topics ranging from aviation security and crisis management to loss prevention and all-hazards risk mitigation.