Improve Your Intuition to Hone Your Hunches

Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs both regarded the intellect as secondary to intuition. Jonas Salk spoke of intuition tossing ideas up to him “like gifts from the sea.” Alan Turing said that mathematical reasoning resulted from two facilities: intuition and ingenuity. Henri Poincare believed that we prove things through science, but that we discover them through intuition.

Many of the world’s great thinkers and doers have been strong believers in the power of intuition. Probably because they were naturally gifted at applying their own well-developed intuitive abilities.

But what about the rest of us? How do we understand intuition better, and can we do anything to make ourselves more intuitive? Can we get into a mindset where we trust our hunches enough to follow them through?

What intuition and hunches are, and what they aren’t

We take in more information each day than our conscious minds can process and store. Consequently, much of that perceptual input is processed, stored, and retrieved subconsciously.

Intuition and hunches both come from below the level of conscious brain activity. Intuition is a subconscious process that allows us to understand things, solve problems, and make decisions without relying on rational analysis. Hunches are outcomes of this process.

While people have long acknowledged the phenomenon of intuition, until recently there hasn’t been a lot of compelling evidence to support the idea.

However, academia has taken intuition more seriously over the last decade or so, and researchers are increasingly finding ways to observe and even measure the impact of intuition.

In one such study, subjects were presented with subliminal emotional information while making conscious sensory decisions. The study found that the influence of nonconscious emotional information (intuition) enabled people to maker faster, more accurate decisions – and boosted their confidence in those decisions.[1]

The study also showed an increase in decision accuracy over time without providing performance feedback to the participants. This suggests that intuition might be improved with practice.[2]

Hunches generally occur when we are able to connect a conscious observation or experience to information that has been intuitively processed and stored.

A hunch is a spontaneous conscious result of nonconscious processes. A hunch can be the basis of a conscious choice or behavior, but we can’t really explain the mental process behind it.

Yet, when someone follows a hunch, and then is later asked why they made that choice or engaged in that behavior, they often seem to be able to quite easily rationalize their choices or actions.[3]

Hunches are powerful enough to influence our decisions, judgment, and behavior. But we understand very little about why we feel compelled to choose or act based on a mere hunch. Often, only after we have realized the outcome of our choice or action, we confabulate some reasoning behind it all.

Given the power of hunches – and our woeful ignorance of their genesis – we would do well to do whatever we can to improve their accuracy.

Intuitive decisions and judgments come to mind on their own, and we are not aware of their cues nor have we done anything to consciously evaluate the validity of those cues. From a dual process theory perspective, intuitive judgments are implicit operations which are automatic, involuntary, and mostly effortless.[4]

A reconceptualization of intuition proposed by Erik Dane and Michael G. Pratt suggests that intuition has four primary characteristics:[5]

  • Intuition is a nonconscious process. Intuitive processing occurs outside of conscious thought. While the outcomes of our intuitive thinking are accessible to conscious thinking, how we arrived at these judgments is not.
  • Intuition involves holistic associations. Intuitive thinking involves matching environmental stimuli to some nonconscious category, feature, or pattern. We map these stimuli onto cognitive structures or frameworks.
  • Intuition produces judgments rapidly. Intuitive thinking is much faster than rational decision-making processes. Intuition enables to make an immediate connection between ideas and avoid the information bottlenecks of conscious processing.
  • Intuition results in emotionally charged judgments. Intuitive judgments often involve – and are often triggered by – our emotions. The outcome of intuition, after all, is often referred to as a “gut feeling.” Our mood can also affect when and how much we rely on our intuition.

We should also distinguish intuition from related constructs such as insight or instinct.

Instincts are hardwired responses or automatic reflexes. These are innate capabilities that originate outside the experiential processing system.[6]

We are born with our instincts. They are biological tendencies. Intuition, however, is based on accumulated experience.

Further, insight is a lengthy process that often involves incubation, a gestation period, and some type of “Eureka” or “Aha!” moment. Insight involves deliberate analytical thinking.[7]

When we use our insight, we are consciously aware of the connections we made to support our solution to a problem. When we use our intuition, we are not.

The benefits and detriments of intuition

Let’s examine some of the advantages and disadvantages of the intuitive thinking process and its resulting output.


It’s widely known that intuitive thinking is fast, but it may also boost accuracy and confidence.

  • Speed. Since intuition does not require our conscious attention, response times for intuitive judgments are much more rapid than with rational decision processes.
  • Accuracy. By eliminating the distractions of deliberation and reflection, our intuitive judgments can be highly accurate. This is especially true when making such judgments within a domain where we have substantial skill and experience.
  • Confidence. Nonconscious emotional information has been shown to increase decision confidence.[8] It is important to note, though, that subjective confidence is not a reliable indicator of the validity of an intuitive judgment.[9]

Research psychologist Gary Klein believes that intuition is the way that we translate our experiences into judgments and decisions. He proposes four beneficial ways that intuition helps us to make effective decisions without deliberate analysis.[10]

  • Relevant cues. Intuition is based largely on pattern recognition. Upon recognizing a pattern, we start to make sense of the situation and our intuition lets us know what cues will be important and what we should look for.
  • Plausible goals. Intuitive thinking allows us to recognize the types of goals that we can realistically accomplish within the situational context.
  • Reasonable expectancies. Intuition lets us know what might be reasonable to expect to happen in the situation.
  • Typical actions. Intuitive patterns reveal routines for responding – what Klein calls action scripts – that enable us to recognize typical ways to react.
  • Subject to bias. Controlling for cognitive or emotional bias usually requires some deliberation, so intuitive thinking may be susceptible to a host of judgment errors.
  • Tunnel vision. While intuition is often built on expertise, this expertise can at times blind us to novel cues and opportunities. The cognitive mechanisms that permit rapid intuitive judgments can also restrict flexibility and cause us to miss or ignore important information.
  • Inaccuracy. Sometimes intuition can be highly accurate. But at other times – in our eagerness to apply some pattern to chaos – intuitive thinking leads us to see connections where none exist. In our haste to connect the dots, we can overlook significant faults and flaws in the information presented to us.
  • Viable alternatives may be missed. Because of the speed of the intuitive thinking process, we are likely to only consider alternatives that fit our cognitive schema. Since we aren’t generating a full set of alternative solutions and considering their costs and benefits, we may miss some viable options.
  • Decision may be based on incomplete information. Intuition is a rapid response to patterns drawn from previous experience, and some of these patterns may include incomplete or inaccurate information from which to make a valid judgment.
  • Potential obstacles or setbacks may be overlooked. When thinking intuitively, we tend to use patterns of past successes and failures to rapidly simulate a likely future outcome. But these past success patterns may not account for new types of obstacles and setbacks that we may encounter in the present or near future.

When – and when not to – rely on intuition

Intuitive thinking has advantages and disadvantages, and sometimes the same characteristic of intuition may be a benefit or detriment depending on the context.

For example, in some situations a fast decision is needed, and in others it is best to think things through. In some circumstances our intuition will lead us to a more accurate choice, in others it will lead us astray.

It’s important to remember that intuitive thinking is always involved in the choices we make. It’s not a matter of choosing between intuitive and rational thought. It’s that our intuitive thinking can be controlled by rational thinking. Reasoning starts with intuition and is then modified by deliberation.[11]

Variables such as prior knowledge, experience, the decision-making environment, uncertainty, the potential impact of bias, and the analytical complexity of the problem can all influence whether it is safe to rely on intuition or whether we must invoke more deliberate, rational thinking.

So, when can we trust our hunches, and when should we not?

Let’s look at a few of the variables that can impact the validity of intuitive and deliberate choices.

  • Experience. Intuition draws heavily on past experience, and hunches are most reliable when you are operating in a domain in which you have considerable prior knowledge and practice.
  • Environment. Environments that provide sufficient regularity and predictability to offer valid situational cues are most conducive to skilled intuition.[12]
  • Uncertainty. Important decisions are often made in uncertain situations with too many unknowns for rational analysis to be effective. In these circumstances, intuition is likely to be more accurate than deliberation.
  • Stress. Stressful circumstances can strain our brain’s processing capacity, making it difficult or impossible to sequentially attend to relevant information. In these situations, intuition’s speed and associative nature can save us.
  • Time pressure. Critical decisions often need to be made at times when we do not have the luxury of exhaustively evaluating all of our options. We just have to decide based on the best information we have. Intuition can help us manage the trade-off between speed and accuracy by allowing us to activate our innate ability to rapidly and efficiently synthesize information.[13]
  • Bias. Intuitive judgments are emotionally charged, and are therefore subject to a surfeit of cognitive biases. Overcoming these biases – assuming we recognize them in the first place – requires deliberate, analytical thinking. But as we get better at consciously recognizing and addressing our biases, our nonconscious intuitive judgments will improve over time as well.
  • Complexity. Some studies have shown that nonconscious thought is more efficient than conscious thought at making complex decisions. Sound decisions require integrating large amounts of information into impressions, then comparing and contrasting these impressions to choose a preference. This requires sophisticated cognitive skill and ample processing capacity, and the low processing capacity of conscious thought is often insufficient.[14] Intuitive thinking can lead to superior decisions when the processing load is just too heavy for us to consciously “think it through.”

Remember, though, that most of our judgments and decisions in life will involve both our nonconscious and conscious thought systems. Just because we are thinking deliberately and rationally doesn’t mean we have somehow suspended all nonconscious thought.

As Jonas Salk said, “Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”

Ways to sharpen our intuition

Although intuitive thinking is a nonconscious process, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take conscious measures to strengthen our intuition.

Gary Klein explains that meaningful experience that enables us to recognize patterns and construct accurate mental models is the key to developing and using intuition effectively.[15]

Toward that end, Klein developed an intuition skills training program built around the following three basic mental conditioning elements:[16]

  • Understand the decision requirements of the domain. These are the intuitions, judgments, and skills that must be mastered to reliably accomplish tasks. The domain may be your job, but it could be any sphere of knowledge or activity in which you regularly operate. You should develop a good sense of the decisions that you must routinely make, what makes those decisions difficult, and what insights might allow you to make better decisions with fewer errors.
  • Practice difficult decisions in context. Our intuition needs to be trained to recognize patterns and build strong mental models. Sometimes, our environment provides us with plenty of these experiential opportunities. When it does not, Klein recommends creating decision-making exercises and games that help us acquire experience. These exercises should present basic details that lead to a dilemma, should involve lots of uncertainty, and should challenge you (or your group) to devise a plan of action. Decision-making exercises should provide simulated experiences that mirror realistic challenges.
  • Review your decision-making experiences. To improve our decisions, we should contemplate them after the fact. We should also solicit feedback from more experienced decisions makers in our domain. The goal, according to Klein, is not to pass judgment about whether the decision was good or bad, but to better understand the process, as well as how and why we made a particular decision. We learn more from process feedback than we do from outcome feedback.

Max Gunther wrote that lucky people are able to consistently choose the best path for themselves because of their ability to generate accurate, trustworthy hunches.

Gunther believed that this hunching talent can be learned, and that it can be developed by following three simple rules:[17]

  • Learn to assess the database. Is it possible you’ve gathered a pool of data on this issue without consciously realizing it? A hunch is only trustworthy if you’ve had experience in this situation. Always ask yourself if the underlying facts are there. Also, don’t trust first impressions. Always go back for a second look. Gunther also cautions us to only fall back on our hunches after first trying to reach a decision based on consciously known data. Laziness produces bad hunches. Don’t rely on hunches merely as decision shortcuts.
  • Never confuse a hunch with a hope. If you have a strong desire for something to be true – and your hunch tells you it is – regard it with suspicion. Bad hunches are often just wishful thinking in disguise. Hunches are formed from unknown facts correlated in unknown ways. Examine a hunch as thoroughly as the situation allows before trusting it.
  • Make room for hunches to grow. Gunther said, “Hunches are made of facts, but they come as feelings.” To develop our hunching talent, we must listen to and respect our feelings. While it may be wise to examine hunches before acting, we don’t want to completely smother them by overanalyzing when we first experience them. We should first focus on the vague, general feeling, and then learn to probe gradually deeper. We should also practice collecting feelings and impressions as well as hard facts, and train ourselves to perceive more than just what we see.

Klein and Gunther offer some specific techniques we can use to build our intuitive power and strengthen our ability to evaluate our hunches, but there are also several more routine strategies that can help boost intuition.

  • Keep a journal. Many of history’s most renowned intuitive thinkers – including Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Nikola Tesla – kept extensive diaries, journals, or notebooks. Recording our ideas and observations helps us track our insight and inspiration, as well as the accuracy of our hunches. A journal also allows us to revisit past intuitive judgments, and generally helps us increase our self-awareness.
  • Meditate. Meditation can help clear our mind of noise and distractions and establish a deeper connection to our intuitive wisdom. The precise effects of various states of mindfulness on our intuitive thinking processes is likely under-researched. So, meditation may not make us more intuitive, per se. But since intuitive judgments such as hunches often present as emotions or mental imagery, regular meditation likely could at least make us more aware of and receptive to them.
  • Periodically refine your vision and goals. Self-evaluation and adjustment of our vision and goals helps to keep us focused, which in turn ensures that we are instinctively accumulating relevant information, whether consciously or nonconsciously. Also, refining our purpose and direction often attracts us to like-minded people whose experience and feedback will enhance our intuition skills.

Intuition, luck, and serendipity

Are intuitive people luckier?

Well, as Max Gunther pointed out, the ability to generate accurate hunches that inspire enough confidence to act would almost certainly help someone make consistently good choices in life.

And making good choice after good choice in life would make us seem luckier to most people.

Are intuitive people more serendipitous?

Intuitive judgments play a significant role in opportunity recognition and evaluation, and our gut feelings and hunches are often a big reason we decide to embrace and exploit an opportunity. If we maintain that these steps are critical components of the gainful serendipity process, then improved intuition makes us more serendipitous.

And with regards to scientific research, our intuitive judgment – right or wrong – can still drive a well-designed experiment that leads to serendipitous discovery.

Regardless of our operational domain, much of luck and serendipity is stimulated by those things we think we know, but don’t know how we know them.

If we can learn to boost our intuitive abilities, we will increase our likelihood of success at any pursuit.


1. Galang Lufityanto, Chris Donkin, and Joel Pearson, “Measuring Intuition: Nonconscious Emotional Information Boosts Decision Accuracy and Confidence,” Psychological Science 27, no. 5 (2016): 11.

2. Ibid, 12.

3. Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes,” Psychological Review 84, no. 3 (May 1977): 232.

4. Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree,” American Psychologist 64, no.6 (September 2009): 519.

5. Erik Dane and Michael G. Pratt, “Exploring Intuition and Its Role in Managerial Decision Making,” Academy of Management Review 32, no. 1 (2007): 36-39.

6. Ibid, 40.

7. Ibid, 40.

8. Lufityanto et al., “Measuring Intuition,” 11.

9. Kahneman and Klein, “Intuitive Expertise,” 523.

10. Gary Klein, The Power of Intuition, (New York: Currency, 2003), 21-24.

11. Robin M. Hogarth, “Deciding Analytically or Trusting Your Intuition? The Advantages and Disadvantages of Analytic and Intuitive Thought,” UPF Economics and Business Working Paper No. 654, (October 2002): 4-6.

12. Kahneman and Klein, “Intuitive Expertise,” 520.

13. Dane and Pratt, “Exploring Intuition,” 33.

14. Ap Dijksterhuis, “Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, no. 5 (2004): 587.

15. Klein, The Power of Intuition, 36.

16. Ibid, 38-56.

17. Max Gunther, The Luck Factor: Why Some People Are Luckier Than Others and How You Can Become One of Them, (Petersfield, UK: Harriman House, 2009), 144-156.

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