Evidence vs Intuition

Photo by Bart Larue

I had a client ask me recently how they can tell whether their gut feeling is a form of inner knowing to be trusted or just a storyline that may lead to further suffering. This level of discernment is quite challenging for most of us! When there is no time to examine the evidence, intuition can be very important. Intuition uses unconscious information in our body or brain to make decisions without much examination and it comes to us more quickly with experience and expertise.

However, this type of lightning fast decision-making is rarely required in our daily lives. We may feel a sense of urgency about a number of things, but in actuality there is often time to think and consider. In most cases its much wiser to pause and examine the evidence, which also includes our inner experience. We value boldness and audacity – we love stories about people who listen to their instincts and jump right in. We tend to view hesitation as weakness. But, the research doesn’t support our preference for this way of being. The evidence shows we tend to woefully overestimate our own abilities. As writer Curtis White stated, thinking with one’s gut often means thinking through one’s appetites.

Did you know that most of us actually have positively-enhanced self-views? This might seem surprising given all we hear about the epidemic of low self-esteem and our tendency to beat ourselves up over every little thing. But the research indicates, on average, we believe ourselves to be smarter, more competent, and attractive than we actually are. This is adaptive in a number of life circumstances, because it increases confidence and self-promotion. Confident people are believed more and their advice is more likely to be followed. But this over-estimation can get us into trouble in other ways.

Although highly intuitive subjects make decisions quickly, research indicates they are unable to identify the rationale behind their actions and the accuracy of their decision-making doesn’t significantly differ from that of non-intuitive subjects. Not only do we have trouble identifying our own rationales, but we also have trouble intuiting others’ feelings and motivations. Research by behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley showed that even romantic couples of 10 years were no better than chance in accuracy at predicting what their partner thinks about a variety of issues. He also showed that trying to adopt the other person’s perspective only makes things worse, because this made couples even more overconfident.

  • “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius
  • “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin
  • “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” – William Yeats
  • “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” – William Shakespeare

So how do we resist the urge to react impulsively and learn to use our hearts and minds more wisely? In terms of understanding others, Dr. Epley recommended “perspective-getting” over “perspective-taking”. We can simply ask the other person what’s actually going on in their minds. In other words, he recommends examining the evidence. One way we can learn to do this more reliably is through a dedicated mindfulness practice. Mindfulness reminds us to pause, reveals things we might otherwise have missed, and helps us to see them as they actually are, freer from the conditioning, biases and assumptions that color unexamined experience. The more data we collect, the more skillful our responses are likely to be and the more satisfying the outcomes. The takeaway – listen to your gut, but do so mindfully and let your mindfulness inform your response.


Lufityanto, G., Donkin, C., & Pearson, J. (2016). Measuring Intuition: Nonconscious Emotional Information Boosts Decision Accuracy and Confidence. Psychological Science.

AJ Giannini, ME Barringer, MC Giannini, RH Loiselle. Lack of relationship between handedness and intuitive and intellectual (rationalistic) modes of information processing. Journal of General Psychology. 111:31-37 1984.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition Nicholas Epley, Erin Whitchurch Personality & Social Psychology Bulltetin Vol 34, Issue 9, 2008

Feeling “Holier Than Thou”: Are Self-Serving Assessments Produced by Errors in Self- or Social Prediction? Nicholas Epley and David Dunning Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, 861-875

The Mixed Blessings of Self-Knowledge in Behavioral Prediction: Enhanced Discrimination but Exacerbated Bias by Nicholas Epley, David Dunning Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 32, Issue 5, 2006

Flawed Self-Assessment Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace David Dunning,1 Chip Heath,2 and Jerry M. Suls Volume 5—Number 3 Copyright r 2004 American Psychological Society

The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others Emily Pronin, Daniel Y. Lin, Lee Ross Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 28, Issue 3, 2002

Podcast: Invisibilia (March 22, 2018) We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded

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