Intuition is for Scoundrels

Whenever you hear the words “intuition” and “decision” in the same sentence… run.  Don’t just run, sprint like a third-grader.  Sometimes this will make you look odd, but that’s a risk worth taking.  To warp a line from Bob Dylan – intuition is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.

Chances are, the difference between your salary and your boss’s (and your boss’s boss’s) is the perceived quality of your intuition.  We all have unique experience and education.  We all think we have a “knack” for things.  We all think we have keen intuition.  Yet some of us have done a better job of convincing others of our superior intuition, and that’s why some of us drive nicer cars.

The sad truth is, despite its prestige, intuition is for scoundrels.  “Intuition” is how we justify decisions when we have absolutely no idea what to do.  It’s a wild guess.  Worse yet, it’s a wild guess based on criteria we can’t even articulate.  So we call it intuition.  We say things like “based on my experience…” or “my gut intuition tells me…” because it sounds a whole lot better than saying “I have no idea what to do, so I’m making a crazy guess that’s beyond my grasp of language to even make sense out of.”

Not all decisions are based on intuition – some rely on data, fact, science, method, rigor.  Those decisions tend to objectively better, as just about any study of any industry tends to show.  But oddly those aren’t always the kinds of decisions that get you a corner office.  Using data to make a sound prediction that turns out accurate can be seen as somehow… plebian, common, lowly… a “working class” decision of sorts.  “Anyone could have based their decision on reason,” so the thinking seems to go, “but only great people are capable of intuition.”  Translation: there can be an inverse correlation between a decision’s rigor and its potential for career advancement.

Why this stigma for empirical reason?  Why second class status for science?  The dirty secret is that some people we work with – especially those who go around trumpeting intuition – are aware of their fraud.  They have a cushy gig and they know it.  The last thing they want is someone challenging their status with actual knowledge they haven’t cornered or controlled, even if it’s right.  Especially if it’s right.  They’ll do just about anything not to upset their scam.  As Upton Sinclair said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

So what should you do?  Go around making bad decisions and hope for a promotion?  No, that may work in the short term but is doomed in the long term.  Besides, it would make you a schmuck.  No, the answer is to be robust, rigorous and scientific despite the scoundrels in your midst.  Then, seek out like-minded cohorts regardless of how high or low they sit in the org. chart.  Form a cadre – a secret society of sorts – to rally around the cause of reason.  Like any secret society, beware of spies.  Scoundrels will try to infiltrate and give you resistance wherever possible.  Yet in time, if you’re persistent and keep your wits about you, your ranks will grow and you’ll infect your firm with data, empiricism and rational thought.  Start a movement.  Above all else, keep the scoundrels at bay.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Molly

    Got to disagree with you on this one, Thomas.

    While yes, decisions made with scientific data and facts can, and do, hold a lot of water, I think intuition is a valuable add to the workplace.

    When there’s minimal to no data to go on for certain business matters, that’s when the great business leaders of our day lean on their gut and just go with it. I would imagine some of the greatest ideas and business decisions were made simply by intuition – there’s no way to explain it, you just feel it. And it works. Of course, it’s hit or miss doing it this way. But all too often, businesses wait to make decisions until they know where they’re leaping. Blockbuster waited to make decisions and they have exhibited no intuition indicating they made any move to prevent their impending doom. Borders books, the same way. Intuition can push some technological advancements and creative ideas where traditional facts and science won’t.

    Not leaning on one’s intuition at times means they can miss chances, miss innovative opportunities and the miss that precious spur-of-the-moment creativity that goes into ideas that actually work.

    Great article – I enjoyed the read!

    Molly @theglassheel

  2. Bridget Pilloud

    This is not an either-or situation, and I’m tired of it being drawn that way.
    Empirical evidence matters. Intuition matters.
    We have to stop being afraid of what we can’t measure.

  3. Patrick N.

    This is refreshing, thanks. Scoundrels indeed. 🙂

  4. Thom de Bruijn

    Scoundrels yes, they have intuïtion but don’t know how to use it to explain their senseless moving, digging and finding the nuts back in winter.
    That’s yhe only difference with scientists; they can always explain what they did even when they are searching the cadre in wich the answer lies to their question “wher my nuts for.”
    They have a job, a team, a boss, because they have no refuge besides that. It’s kind of living a great life with proving that what can be proven is the best proof that proofs are proven to be better.
    Then calling squirls intuïtive when running around up and down the tree of wisdom.
    Sorry Thomas, there is are two letters that differs you from me; AS. As this is true and as that is said by Dylan and as research proves than science is better as people stick together and as squirls do not critisize.
    As a matter of fact I agree, in the fact that Intuïtion used as a kind of science, combined with all kind of other ways to find things out, is the only way that makes people with intuition great.
    Greatest thing of science; they only use a very small and specific part of intelligence and a lot of instruments and everybody knows that instruments are cheaper than man and that repeatedly doing the same with the use of one bodypart was the fundament of the cheap industrial time’ see Modern Times from Charly Chaplin.
    Thanks Thomas

  5. Jeremy

    I think this is a good poke at the contrast between data-driven and intuitive thinking. Thanks. Both have their place, but intuition (as this blog suggests) is a good Plan B rather than a Plan A. If you have data, use it. If you don’t all you can do is guess. Let’s at least be honest about what’s really going on. Great read.

  6. Clarence Reardon

    Intuition is what it’s called when you get it right, A bad guess is what it’s called when you screw up!

Leave a Reply