Psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to psychologist Daniel Kahneman in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013, in Washington, D.C. 

Nearly every individual can recall a time when he or she felt propelled by an inner sense of knowing, an unabating sense of intuition which leads us in the right direction in times of uncertainty. Sophy Burnham, author of the bestselling book “Art of Intuition,” articulately describes this phenomenon as “a knowing without knowing,” separate from thinking, logic or analysis. Scientists have spent endless decades attempting to decode the secrets of the intuitive mind. Their findings? When it comes to decision-making, going with with your gut often leads to more favorable outcomes than protracted, logical reasoning does.

Researchers have identified two diametric “operating systems” that invariably influence human functioning. The first system is defined by a “quick, instinctual and often subconscious way of operating.” This process of reasoning is controlled by our right brain and other areas of the cerebellum, referred to as the limbic and reptilian aspects of the brain.

The second system, however, is defined by a “slower, more analytical and conscious way of operating.” Intuition is an innate part of System 1, which explains why these rapid sensations arise so suddenly from our instincts. Nobel laureate, Princeton University professor of psychology and acclaimed author Daniel Kahneman explores the nature of insight derived from this interaction even further in his bestselling book “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

Kahneman’s publication delves into the nature of intuition by incorporating observations of the phenomenon in both everyday and extraordinary contexts. For instance, Kahneman cites the profound work of Herbert Simon, who noted that intuition is “nothing more than and nothing less than recognition” following his observations of professional chess players.

Kahneman contrasts Simon’s observations against the element of normalcy we are met with when a small child exclaims “doggie” at the everyday sighting of a canine. Perhaps no one has more coherently conveyed the meaning of intuition than Kahneman when he claimed that “good intuitions come with the same immediacy as ‘doggie!’”

So, it can be said that intuition is the instinctive ability to recognize something, sans conscious thought. Simon has articulated that one’s intuition is activated when a given situation provides a cue that grants this individual access to memorized information.

“In a society that often admonishes instinctive insights in favor of protracted decision-making processes, it can be difficult to harmonize with our own intuition...”

He contends that this stored information then provides the answer on a subconscious level. This stored information includes experiences of the past and the understanding of one’s self (such as personal preferences), which are compared to circumstances of the present moment. In a sense, intuition is an internal calculation of several components all at once, culminating in the gut feeling we associate with our intuition.

According to the results acquired from countless studies, researchers have realized that decisions prompted by System 1 reactions often result in more favorable outcomes than those ascertained by System 2. For example, a study in which car buyers either deliberated over their purchase or made a relatively instantaneous decision, the former found themselves satisfied with their purchase only 25 percent of the time while the latter experienced purchase satisfaction 60 percent of the time.

These results revealed that engaging in conscious deliberation prior to making a complex decision often produces less favorable outcomes as opposed to those garnered from intuitive decision-making processes.

Now that the value of intuitive decision-making has come to light, how can we prioritize this decision-making process in our own lives? Intuition is often overlooked as a redeeming and extensively researched form of reasoning, so in a society that often admonishes instinctive insights in favor of protracted decision-making processes, it can be difficult to harmonize with our own intuition at times.

According to Arianna Huffington, author of the seminal self-improvement book “Thrive,” mindfulness can be a great mode of strengthening one’s intuition. A study published in “Perspectives on Psychological Science” described mindfulness as the practice of “paying attention to one’s experiences in a non-judgmental way,” which can lend a great deal of insight into our intuitive feelings.

When we are mindful, we can tap into the signals our body is sending us in any given moment. If we are feeling connected and energized, we experience an innate understanding that we should incorporate more of this experience into our everyday lives. Likewise, if we feel out of touch and drained, we know that we ought to reduce our exposure to whatever is causing these emotions.

Just as we get a fever when infected with a virus, so too can we tap into our internal signals to recognize when something is off in our lives. When we practice looking into ourselves, we come to find that our intuition provides the most direct path to fulfillment.

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