What Can Science Tell Us About Intuition?

Intuition can be a valuable resource for making decisions. Don’t ask me how I know that, I just know it.

In science, though, intuition only goes so far. In fact, it’s only really useful as long as it leads to evidence.

So what happens when science and intuition get together? Researchers have tried a few different ways of studying intuition to learn more about it.

One of the tools they’ve been using for the last decade is a kind of test that contains questions like the following:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _____ cents

Well, 10 cents of course! Right?

But if the ball costs $0.10, then the bat costs $1.10, and together they cost $1.20! Doh! Bad intuition! Bad!

The idea is that questions like this have one “intuitive” answer that’s wrong, and one more “analytical” answer that’s right, so people who tend to rely more on intuition are more likely to give the wrong answer. In practice, intuition is about a lot more than just getting duped by these types of trick questions, and the test measures things other than how intuitive you are, but it gives researchers a starting point for at least learning something about intuition.

For example, one study used this kind of test to find support for the idea that people who rely more on intuition have a greater sense of meaning in life. On average, people who gave more “reflective” (that is, correct!) answers reported having a much lower sense of meaning in their lives. In the same study, people who scored higher on a Faith in Intuition questionnaire (a more direct measure of how much people trust their gut) also had more meaning in their lives.

Other research has been consistent with the idea that people who put more stock in their intuition find more meaning in life. Along similar lines, it appears that people who are more “intuitive” in the sense that they get more of the ball-and-bat type of trick questions wrong are more likely to believe in God and to have their belief in God strengthen over time.

And not just God. Pretty much anything supernatural or spooky, including astrology and ESP, it turns out. A study published last year showed that people with more intuitive ways of thinking are more likely to attribute uncanny coincidences to supernatural causes rather than simple chance.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that “intuition” isn’t one single thing – rather, there are multiple kinds of intuition. Some research published this year by German researchers shows this clearly.

In the study, the researchers looked at two kinds of intuition: intuition as it relates to words, and intuition as it relates to pictures.

To study intuition as it relates to words, the researchers presented participants with triads of words, and the participants were then asked to determine for each triad whether the words were related or not. Here are two of the triads used in the study:



The first triad is related because all words are connected to the word SEA. The second triad is just random words.

The researchers also studied intuition as it relates to pictures, and they did this by showing participants blurred pictures. Participants had to determine whether each picture represented a real object.

When the results came in, it turned out that people with depression performed below average on the word-based intuition task but above average on the picture-based intuition task. So being good at one kind of intuition isn’t necessarily a predictor of being good at another kind of intuition.

In this study, participants had to rely on intuition to get to the right answers, but there are times when trusting your intuition can lead you astray, too. The science that has been done suggests that as we get older, we become more susceptible to this faulty intuition.

Case in point: in one experiment, people were given a chance to win money by drawing a red jellybean from one of two jars containing red and white jellybeans. One jar contained 9 red beans and 91 white beans; the other 1 red bean and 9 white beans. Your chances of drawing the red bean are higher in the smaller jar (10 percent vs. 9 percent), but many people “intuitively” choose the larger jar anyway because it contains more red beans. And it turns out that in general, older adults are more likely to go with the larger jar.

In a related experiment, researchers asked people a series of scientific questions where the correct answer either was or wasn’t intuitive. For example, the answer to the question “does the Earth revolve around the sun?” isn’t intuitive but the answer to “does the moon revolve around the Earth?” is. Older adults answered the non-intuitive questions as accurately as younger adults, but there was a bigger gap in how long it took them to answer the non-intuitive vs. the intuitive questions.

It’s a cautious dance between science and intuition, so there’s still more work to be done. But as far the question of should you trust your intuition?, science can give us this answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no. You’ll just have to use your best judgment to figure out which times are which.

Image: FreeImages.com/Julia Freeman-Woolpert