How to Tell If Your Intuition Is Good

January 11, 2007  

My friend Susanne and I were recently playing a trivia game. She’s pretty good with the trivia. However, at one point, she got a couple wrong answers in row. “Urgh,” she blurted out, “every time I have a gut answer and change it, it was actually correct.”

This made me curious. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Blink, said that we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. Was this true in Susanne’s case? Or was her mind playing tricks on her? To test this out, we did a little – admittedly unscientific – experiment.

We turned to a set of trivia questions where you had to guess the year that different events took place. For example, the year President Ford survived two assassination attempts (1975), or the year Pete Rose set a National League consecutive game hitting streak record of 44 (1978).

For our experiment, we took 10 questions. I would read her the name of an event (like the signing of the SALT II treaty) and Susanne would instantaneously give me her “gut” answer. I marked down her answer as she proceeded to use analysis and a bit of time to come up with a final “logical” answer. In this case, the correct answer is 1979.

The results?

Out of 10 questions:

  • One of her “gut” answers was closer than her “logical” answer – but only by one year.
  • Four responses were unchanged after applying further reasoning. This means that 40% of the time, her “gut” answer and “logical” answer were the same.
  • Five times, when she changed her “gut” response, her “logical” answer proved to be closer to the real date, often significantly closer.

What does this mean? Well, given that our study was not statistically valid, not much. However, it does point out an interesting phenomenon. Humans get attached to things such as our gut responses. When we change a gut answer that was correct and give a final answer that is wrong, we kick ourselves. However, we are much less likely to remember the situations where our gut answer was wrong and our final answer was correct.

I have seen this concept in action in other places too, such as gambling.

I like blackjack because it is a game of probability – and only probability. I find it interesting that so many people are superstitious and have illogical beliefs. One time I was at the blackjack table with my friend, Gary. In total, there were five of us at the table. One of the other players was quite a beginner. In fact, he stunk! We nicknamed him “Stinkie.” He would take cards (a hit) when he clearly should not. And he would stand when almost any other player would hit. As expected, he lost a lot of hands, and a lot of money. That is expected and not very interesting.

The interesting part is that Gary became quite agitated. He was convinced that Stinkie was negatively affecting HIS hands. For example, on one hand, Stinkie took a card when he should certainly have stayed. The card he got was the one Gary wanted, and as a result Gary lost. During another hand, the beginner stayed when he should have taken a card. The card that would have helped the beginner in fact helped the dealer, and everyone at the table lost.

Tempers were flaring. The other players would like to have switched tables, but the casino was crowded and there were no other seats available. Instead, everyone wanted to lynch the beginner – or at least convince him to leave. I was amused by these violent reactions. From my perspective the beginner had NO impact on my winnings – probabilistically speaking. Everyone noticed the times when the beginner’s actions caused them to lose. But they NEVER noticed the times when his actions helped them win. NEVER.

That evening, Gary was still convinced he lost money because of Stinkie. I tried to convince him that this bad player – purely from a probabilistic perspective – had no impact on him or the other players. He was not convinced. So I decided to put together a little experiment. I created a game that accurately simulated hundreds of hands of blackjack. For every hand, we kept track of whether the bad player’s actions impacted the other player. After 200 hands, approximately 50% of the time, the bad player had no impact on the other player. 25% of the time the bad player hurt the other player. And 25% of the time, the bad player actually helped the other player – they won when they otherwise would have lost.

It is interesting how human nature compels us to fixate on what we lose rather than what we gain.

I remember hearing about a study done with college students who were given a multiple choice exam. The test administrators developed it in such a way that they could track when a student changed an answer.

After the students received their results, the examiner asked if, when the student changed a particular answer, whether they believed that their first answer was correct more often or not. Nearly all of the students believed that their first answers, or “gut” answers, were in fact correct, and that when they changed their response they more often got it wrong. This was similar to Susanne’s initial belief.

However, the study showed that the students’ final answers were more often correct than their gut answers – by a wide margin.

Why is this so?

One of the reasons is attachment. When we have something and lose it, we notice it more than if we gain something we never had. Studies show that investors who own a particular stock are likely to hold on to it. However, if they did not already own the stock, it is unlikely they would purchase it.

What does this mean for you?

Take a look at what you have in your life. Are you holding on to it just because you already have it? Do you operate from a fear of losing what you already have? Do you play small because you prefer “the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” If so, be aware that this attitude prevents you from taking risks and living the life you want. It stifles creativity, passion, and true success.

Take an inventory of your life: your belongings, your job, your friends, and your relationships.

If you were to design your life from scratch, would you seek out these things and people? Or, would you make different choices?

Go through your house and eliminate as much as you can. If you read Goal-Free Living, you know that I once fit everything I owned into a few boxes and moved apartments in the back of a taxi with just 2 trips. Have a garage sale. Sell everything on eBay (my friend Lynn Dralle is an eBay expert). Or give everything to Goodwill and receive a tax write-off. This will generate some cash. More importantly, you will find this house cleaning frees you up immensely. Fewer possessions means fewer things to worry about losing or breaking, and ultimately, fewer attachments.

Take a look at your job. Do you love your job? Or are you there mainly because it is easier to stay put than explore new options? One friend once told me, “I would do something different if only I could figure out what I wanted to do.” That was his problem. He was intellectualizing his interests, rather than experiencing them. My suggestion? Join various organizations. Go to networking meetings with the idea of learning about what others do. Meet knew people. Doing these things, he found his new career, and you can do the same. Treat the process of exploration as a game.

Finally, take a brutally honest look at your relationships. Are people still in your life because they truly nurture you? Or have they just been there all along? If a relationship or friendship is not working, do something about it. Either improve the relationship, or (as Susanne would say) give the person to Goodwill. Sorry, no tax write-offs for donating a dud relationship.

Consider this for a moment: What if losing your current existence – everything that you own and have – turned out to be the greatest thing that could happen to you? Ponder it. Play with it. With this blank sheet of paper in mind, now add back in the pieces that you really want – not just because they have always been there, but because you really want them. What would your new life look like?

Yes, you want to appreciate the life you currently have (aka “want what you have”). But don’t use this as an excuse for staying where you are. Goal-Free Living is about moving in new directions and experiencing new opportunities – without attachment to particular outcomes. Break free from the shackles of your past – your attachment to what has been – and create a “new you.”

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5 Responses to “How to Tell If Your Intuition Is Good”

  1. Ton on January 15th, 2007 1:02 pm

    When – as Stephen suggests – I add back the pieces of my life that I really want, I might negate some of the responsibilities that I hold because of choices that I made earlier in my life. This is something I am not willing to do. What do you think of the issue?

  2. Stephen Shapiro on February 17th, 2007 1:53 pm

    Ton,

    In regards to your question…

    Attachments are things you hold on to for no particular reason.

    Responsibilities are things you (at one point) committed to doing.

    Some responsibilities may only be attachments though – an attachment to life looking a particular way. This is a goal.

    Marriage, for example, is a commitment. You don’t just leave your spouse because you’ve decided to no longer want to be married. However, being in a miserable marriage is an attachment; neither party is happy. Either improve your relationship or find some other creative alternative where both parties are happy.

    Children are a responsibility. But treating them as a burden is a lose-lose proposition.

    It’s all a matter of choice. Powerfully embrace your responsibilities, not because you have to, but because you want to. Doing so can make any commitment a thing of passion.

    Goal-Free Living is all about integrity. But integrity is often misunderstood.

    Quite often it only means “being your word.” This is definitely one component of integrity. But it is only half of the equation. When you say “yes” to requests when you want to say “no,” maintaining that type of integrity becomes a burden.

    This leads to the second half of integrity – “your word being you.” Make commitments that are truly in line with your personal compass and values. Yes, your compass changes over time. In those situations you typically need to honor past commitments. But sometimes, a creative solution can change that situation. Maintaining commitments as the currently exist is a goal. Instead, strive to honor the “intent” of your commitment while meeting the needs of all parties involved. Doing so, you may find that you can develop a win-win solution.

    Steve

  3. Denise on August 20th, 2007 8:00 am

    The blackjack story reminds of my work, I do regulatory compliance for a securities company so I answer shareholder complaints to the SEC. My company sells buys and shares but we are not a broker, so the price is a weighted average for the trading date, shareholders cannot specify a price.

    The upshot is that someone is always writing in that we sold at too low a price or purchased at too high a price. No one EVER writes in and says ‘hey thanks for giving me such a high sale price!’ They are all convinced they are being cheated.

    Sometimes I think the whole fixation we have on ‘loss’ stems from childhood, when you always felt like your sibling or classmate got the better crayons, piece of cake, etc.

  4. Tanya Melloul on November 8th, 2007 12:20 am

    Making a change in life can be scary. Many people are afraid of the unknown. As a result people tend to stay with what they feel comfortable with. A persons intution is almost always on target… However if a person emotionally attacted to a thing then their intution will be blinded by desire… which is not a good thing

  5. Shari Thomas on November 10th, 2007 2:16 pm

    Over the past few years, I came to the realization it was time for a change. Being a “regular” at the restaurant, and even at church meant I was overlooked by the waitresses (I’d be patient, after all, I was one of their best customers), and my fellow church members were still asking me about a business I’d closed 10 years earlier.

    I left town with nothing more than my dog, and $400 and my car, headed to some friend’s in another state.

    That was a year ago, and now I’m happier than I could ever imagine, and am re-charged, and ready to get back to business.

    At age 61, I’ve had an epiphany about the old Chinese proverb… “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Once again, I find it guiding my life… and this time, I’m a lot more receptive.

    As for intuition, I’ve found that when an idea keeps me awake at night for more than two nights, or consumes my sub-conscious thought, I must take action. That means research the idea and then accept it or reject… just don’t let it eat at me.