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“There’s No Such Thing as an Intuitive Person…”

A new book by an esteemed professor debunks the concept of intuition as leadership tool.
Is intuition a myth?
image from Getty Images

“What, exactly, lies behind this amorphous phenomenon we call ‘intuition’?” writes Maria Popova on her fascinating Brain Pickings blog. ”That’s precisely what CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci explores in a chapter of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.

Popova shares some intriguing excerpts from Pigliucci’s book, including ”an important debunking of the grab-bag term ‘intuition’”:

“One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.”

What does this mean for executives, beyond the “practice makes perfect” principle?

The big takeaway is to think twice the next time someone invokes the term intuition in a business context.

In some cases, this may mean to “tell your gut to please shut up” — advice proffered by Michael Schrage, research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, in the Harvard Business Review. “The entire field of behavioral economics has been built on the intensifying recognition that people, particularly smart ones, are suckers for cognitive illusions and heuristic biases that pretty much guarantee that ‘gut-trusting’ will, on average, yield heart burn,” he writes.

In other cases, the takeaway is to trust your gut — not as the sole factor on which to base any decision, but as something to consider seriously. Especially since, as Pigliucci points out, there is plenty of practice and experience in your so-called “intuition.” That’s what Francis Cholle, author of The Intuitive Compass and founder of The Human Company, espouses. “Every entrepreneur who launched a successful business would tell you that at some point he or she made a critical decision based on gut instinct, because when you create something meaningful that does not have any existing equivalent you will have to rely on your own judgment beyond any logical framework of reference,” he writes on The Human Company’s blog, in response to Schrage’s article. ”That’s the difficulty of launching a new business. You have to step in the unknown.”



One hallmark of Schrage's work is his ability to turn a phrase.

For example, in his HBR article "Don't Confuse Engagement with User Experience," he points out that "The Android operating system has been outselling Apple's iOS by nearly a 5:1 ratio.

"Yet by virtually every meaningful metric that matters," he continues, "Apple's users are reliably, revealingly and remarkably more engaged in e-commerce, browsing, and apps than their Android counterparts."

His fantastic phrase? "Android sells disproportionately more devices that are used disproportionately less."

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