Intuition Is the Highest Form of Intelligence

This piece was written by Bruce Kasanoff. It is an expanded version of an article he first published on Forbes; that piece has been read over one million times.

Intuition, argues Gerd Gigerenzer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is less about suddenly "knowing" the right answer and more about instinctively understanding what information is unimportant and can thus be discarded.

Gigerenzer, author of the book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, says that he is both intuitive and rational. "In my scientific work, I have hunches. I can’t explain always why I think a certain path is the right way, but I need to trust it and go ahead. I also have the ability to check these hunches and find out what they are about. That’s the science part. Now, in private life, I rely on instinct. For instance, when I first met my wife, I didn’t do computations. Nor did she."

I'm telling you this because recently one of my readers, Joy Boleda, posed a question that stopped me in my tracks:

What about intuition? It has never been titled as a form of intelligence, but would you think that someone who has great intuition in things, has more intelligence?

My "gut instinct" is to say yes, especially when we are talking about people who are already intellectually curious, rigorous in their pursuit of knowledge, and willing to challenge their own assumptions.

Let me put this a bit simpler. If all you do is sit in a chair and trust your intuition, you are not exercising much intelligence. But if you take a deep dive into a subject and study numerous possibilities, you are exercising intelligence when your gut instinct tells you what is - and isn't - important.

In some respects, intuition could be thought of as a clear understanding of collective intelligence. For example, most web sites are today organized in an intuitive way, which means they are easy for most people to understand and navigate. This approach evolved after many years of chaos online, as a common wisdom emerged over what information was superfluous and what was essential (i.e. About Us = essential).

Theo Humphries argues that intuitive design can be described as "understandable without the use of instructions". This is true when an object makes sense to most people because they share a common understanding of the way things work.

You might say that I'm a believer in the power of disciplined intuition. Do your legwork, use your brain, share logical arguments, and I'll trust and respect your intuitive powers. But if you merely sit in your hammock and ask me to trust your intuition, I'll quickly be out the door without saying goodbye.

I say this from personal experience; the more research I do, the better my intuition works.

Although this may be a paraphrase of his thoughts on the subject, Albert Einstein has been widely quoted as saying, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

Sometimes, a corporate mandate or group-think or your desire to produce a certain outcome can cause your rational mind to go in the wrong direction. At times like these, it is intuition that holds the power to save you. That "bad feeling" gnawing away at you is your intuition telling you that no matter how badly you might wish to talk yourself into this direction, it is the wrong way to go.

Smart people listen to those feelings. And the smartest people among us - the ones who make great intellectual leaps forward - cannot do this without harnessing the power of intuition.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of numerous bestselling books, recently observed that, “Writers and physicists report that 20% of their most important ideas happen during mind wandering—and those ideas are more likely to be ‘aha’ moments.”

He then suggests, “Time set aside to daydream is an essential part of a creative day.”

Is this how your company works? Does it carve out time for people to be creative and to explore?

In many cases, the answer is no. That may be why large companies often hit a wall and stop innovating, or growing. Small companies hit this wall, too, whenever a leadership team gets too rigid or regimented.

There are limits to what discipline and data can produce. Our increasingly “data-driven” world has severe limitations.

Writing a few years ago in The New York Times, Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis pointed out that "A big data analysis might reveal... that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply. But it’s hard to imagine there is any causal relationship between the two."

In other words, big data does some things very well, but it is a long way from a magic solution to, well, anything. And yet we are increasingly surrounded by leaders and organizations that want to make every decision based on data.

But there's another problem, and it's a significant one: big data can be just as biased as your stubborn old uncle who thinks everyone who disagrees with him is an idiot.

According to the Irish Times, "researchers at Eurecat — the Catalonian Centre for Technology — in Spain and the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Italy, agreed that 'algorithmic bias exists even when there is no discrimination intention in the developer of the algorithm'."

This does not mean that the programmers were biased; it could also be that the data sources contained certain forms of bias.

The antidote to such flaws and weaknesses is not more data. Instead, we need to raise the amount of respect given to the very human skill of intuition. Mind you, I'm not talking about blind hunches or a "feeling" that comes over you one Sunday night while you watch House of Cards.

In the context of professional organizations, intuition literally means arriving with confidence at an answer without being able to explain how you got to that answer. In the big data era, being unable to explain your logic is a huge liability, and yet this is exactly what happens with expert intuition.

In the years ahead, artificial intelligence and automation are going to kill millions of jobs, maybe even your job. You're not going to be able to protect your job simply by acting more like a computer… because every computer will be able to out-computer you.

Instead, you need to foster uniquely human skills, such as intuition. The same is true for your organization. Human qualities will become more important in the years ahead, not less.

I'm a realist. Many leaders and professionals will read this article and scoff at my conclusions. They'll argue that gut instinct is the realm of biased, lazy workers. They'll say that facts and logic rule today, nothing else.

Time will tell. I'd still bet on the judgment of true experts — actual human beings — who know how to study the data, apply rational thoughts, but ultimately also trust their intuition.

In far too many cases, the facts tell you to do one thing, but your intuition screams the opposite. When that happens to me, I never ignore those screams.

Bruce Kasanoff is a social media ghostwriter for entrepreneurs.