That voice in the back of your mind. Those butterflies in your stomach. The feeling you just can’t shake. Intuition, though we may not always recognize it, makes itself known in a number of ways. Sometimes it comes as a creeping feeling that builds itself up as we go about our day. Other times, it hits as suddenly and ferociously as a blaring siren. However it appears, we’re often told trusting our gut and acting on it is critical. But why? Where does it come from?
Maybe trusting our gut guided a new job offer—it just felt right. Perhaps we could feel that friend needed a phone call. Or that the man in the store was up to no good. In the moment, we can’t always explain how we know these things—we simply do. Mysterious as intuition seems, psychology experts say it may be just as much a result of external event as an internal feeling. Carlin Flora writes in Psychology Today that gut feeling is usually triggered by something so quick you don’t even realize that your mind picked up on it, like a facial expression, a tone of voice, or a visual inconsistency. Whatever the case, trusting our gut to keep our heads above water can be a real lifesaver.
Mental Matching Game
According to Flora, psychologists best describe intuition as a mental matching game. “The brain takes in a situation, does a very quick search of its files, and then finds its best analogue among the stored sprawl of memories and knowledge,” writes Flora. But it doesn’t end there. Experience is almost always connected to emotion. Intuition hits when something our brain detected brings back that feeling from an earlier time.
For instance, after reading a seemingly vague email from a client, you get the dreaded sense that you are on the verge of losing them. Chances are that even if nothing was said outright, something in the email or an earlier interaction with that client subconsciously triggered a past experience. So, that feeling in your gut now is your body remembering the disappointment, anger, or frustration.
I spent years producing local newscasts. After a bit of time, I could hear a call go out on one of the police scanners we were constantly monitoring, and many times I would be able to tell if the incident required me to send a news crew to the scene immediately. I’d get that feeling in my gut and start making the calls that would get our crew to the scene before competing news outlets. Other times, my gut would tell me to hold back. I’d sense that the call likely wouldn’t pan out and therefore wasn’t worth jeopardizing what the crew was already working on for the newscast that would be going to air shortly.
I joked about it being “producer’s intuition”. But now I understand that it wasn’t exactly a magical phenomenon. My brain was working faster than I ever realized and picked up on something. Maybe it was in the officer’s voice on the scanner, or in the words that were used. Maybe a location or circumstance was familiar from a previous news story. Whatever it was, my mind noticed that this news scanner call followed a past pattern, which triggered (or didn’t) the memory of an adrenaline rush that accompanied a good breaking news story. That subconscious memory created my gut feeling.
A Warning Signal: Trusting Our Gut
Intuition can do more than help you navigate career choices or relationships. In some cases, it can be life altering. Most people can think of a time when something just didn’t feel right. That guy on campus who was a little too persistent. The shortcut home that sent shivers down your spine. The coworker who always made you a little uncomfortable. Trusting our gut can keep us out of some sticky situations. But it can also lead us to overreact or embarrass ourselves, causing us to doubt our own intuition.
If a gut feeling is followed, there’s not always a way to know if it is correct. Did that guy really mean harm? Was there any actual danger lurking on that shortcut? But the risk of not trusting our gut could lead to tragedy, as we’ve seen played out in newspapers and newscasts. So how do you know whether to act on that eerie feeling or not?
Tapping into a ‘Sixth Sense” for Defense
There’s no clear-cut answer but, with such drastic outcomes in dangerous situations, the foreboding feeling has grabbed the attention of the United States Military. It is looking into the process of this sixth sense to protect troops in combat zones. Annie Jacobsen, the author of the book Phenomena, explains that the Office of Naval Research spent almost $4 million on a four-year research project exploring premonition and intuition.
The research, gathered through field reports, claimed a “sixth sense” alerted soldiers of an impending attack or a hidden danger. Thanks to this sense, they were able to act quickly. “If we can characterize this intuitive decision-making process and model it, then the hope is to accelerate the acquisition of these skills,” says Lieutenant Commander Brent Olde with the Office of Naval Research. Those skills are what the Defense Department refers to as “sensemaking,” or the motivated effort to understand connections (between people, places and events) in order to anticipate and act. The idea is that, with experience and training, the mental matching game happening in our minds can possibly be sped up and honed in, giving greater confidence to know when to act on it.
Experience and Intuition
With or without military training, identifying those connections and trusting in them isn’t exactly easy. A study published from the University of Kent School of Psychology during 2017 found that people who thought they were highly intuitive did not show any more intuition than people who considered themselves less intuitive. Those who identified as highly intuitive may have been more likely to act on their gut feeling, simply because of their confidence in said intuition.
However, their feeling wasn’t necessarily accurate. Since intuition is our subconscious mind searching for and connecting with a pattern from our past, experience may be the biggest factor in how reliable your intuition is. That’s why the length of time I worked in newsrooms and made breaking news decisions coincided with how strong my “producer’s intuition” seemed. It’s also how the military can help soldiers strengthen their “sixth sense.” Through training, soldiers gain experience, which gives their minds something to match with in a potentially dangerous situation.
Data and Time
Experience isn’t the only factor that comes into play when deciding whether to trust your intuition. According to Harvard Business Review, the type of decision you’re making also has an impact. Dr. Connson Chou Locke writes that unstructured problems, ones without clear decision-making rules, are the most conducive to intuition. For instance, how to resolve a conflict between employees or whether a new art exhibit will be successful.
On the flip side, turning to intuition for problems with clear decision rules, like objective criteria and abundant data, is not always reliable. Of course, Dr. Locke explains, there are plenty of times when the decision you’re facing doesn’t fall neatly into either of those categories. For instance, taking the leap to sell your product in a new market can be decided through data analysis, but the success will be affected by the new customers’ feelings about the product – something data can’t determine.
Timing is Everything
The amount of time you have to make a decision can also play a role in trusting your intuition. Your gut feeling can be helpful when you must act quickly and there is no time for analyzing. It’s not always a guarantee, but when you don’t have the time to overthink a situation—that’s often when intuition can be the most reliable.
Intuition is far from one-size-fits-all. The way we sense it, trust it, and act on it varies from each person and situation. It can aid us in business, relationships, moral situations, and even save lives. But it can be clouded by hopes, fear, and overthinking in general. There is no formula for when to follow your gut feeling, but understanding where it comes from, what match is being made in your mind, can be the first step in knowing when to rely on it.
Meet the Author
Megan Schlosser Filak earned a degree in journalism from American University in Washington, DC., after which she spent five nights a week bringing together thousands of people across all walks of life for her news broadcast. From politicians and artists to store clerks and business leaders, she sought to hold the attention of her diverse audience, make engagement a personal experience, and interact through social media. Doing so kept her newscast at the top of ratings.
When Megan chose to retire her producer role after nearly a decade in newsroom, the skills she counted on to seek out and tell countless stories to thousands of viewers helped her as she took on new roles. Since then, Megan has utilized her creativity and quick thinking to plan, promote, and execute successful fundraisers for the American Cancer Society. She now works full time in destination marketing, where she seeks out new and exciting ways to promote her area to both visitors and locals.