Does Intuition Affect Decisions?

By Daniel Goleman

As a follow-up to my earlier post about the brain and gut decisions, I want to share my conversation with Erica Ariel Fox for my Leadership: A Master Class about how intuition can factor into good decision-making. Erica Ariel Fox is a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, and part of the internationally acclaimed Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

“Let’s look at Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of thin-slicing. My interpretation: you are in fact cognitively perceiving data, it’s just that you’re doing it so quickly. With pattern recognition from past experience, what you experience as intuitive is actually just unbelievably quick cognitive processing.

There are also arguments that when the emotional part of the brain is damaged, people can’t make decisions: you need the right and left hand side of the brain, the cognitive and the emotional. I think that is right for certain kinds of decisions, such as when you’re gathering information and trying to make meaning or make sense out of information.

But these approaches to decision-making don’t address what might be called direct knowing: I know this, but I don’t know how I know it. I didn’t read it in a book. Nobody told it to me. I didn’t have an Excel spreadsheet that laid it out for me. Nonetheless, I know it.

I think we have a set of skills that coaches and leaders who work with teams might call “reading the room.” Others call it attunement or discernment. It’s not data processing and thin-slicing, and it’s also not having an emotional evaluation of decisions. It’s a sensing. When I work with a team in crisis, tuning in to the group’s feelings and emotions really helps me ask the right questions about what’s happening.

People will be shocked when they think back over the course of their lives, ‘when I made that decision, I actually knew it was wrong, but I didn’t trust the part of me that was telling me not to do it.’ Or they say, ‘It was the craziest thing. I made this decision. Everyone in my life thought I was insane, but I just knew it was right, and it turned out it was the best decision I ever made.’”

How does this concept resonate with you? How would you explain intuition in relation to decision-making?

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