Knowing without words

Margaret Rekers was planning to start her own business, but a job opened up that suited her perfectly—or at least that’s what everyone else told her. The educational psychologist and youth coach in Bodegraven, the Netherlands, took the job. “I let myself be convinced,” she says. “I worked there for a year, but I shouldn’t have.”
The work was interesting and her colleagues were pleasant, so that wasn’t the problem. “It wasn’t in line with the direction I wanted to take,” Rekers says. She quit a year later and launched her own business. I wish I had followed my intuition, she thought in retrospect. “It didn’t feel right from the start.”
The trepidation Rekers experienced at the time illustrates the prejudices against our intuition. It’s difficult for us to act on something as undefinedand hard to explain as a gut feeling.
“It doesn’t feel right.” Just try using that line of reasoning with your spouse or well-meaning parents when you’re offered a solid job during an economic crisis. It’s one reason we often ignore the feeling. And that’s too bad, because when we tap into our intuition effectively, it helps us make better decisions.
These claims clash with the prevailing dogma of rational decision-making, according to Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. “Many people still view intuition as suspect because people aren’t exactly sure what the unconscious does,” he says. “That suspicion is entirely unjustified.”
Our intuition works for all sorts of decisions, from our careers to the choices we face in the changing rooms of a clothing store. Recent scientific research shows that the best results are not achieved by subjecting every single option to extensive scrutiny, nor by making snap judgments. Intuition-based decisions made by letting information sink in and listening to our gut feelings tend to produce much better results.
It’s not always easy—and not just because we expect the people around us to disapprove. Our unconscious minds also have their own pitfalls. We shouldn’t completely disengage our conscious minds either.
How can we optimize the way we use the intelligence of our unconscious? When can we trust our intuition, and when should we exercise healthy skepticism?
Essentially, there are three ways to make a choice, says Ap Dijksterhuis, professor of the psychology of the unconscious at Radboud University Nijmegen. One: We make a quick decision without thinking about it. That’s how we make most of our decisions throughout the day, like mindlessly making sandwiches to take along for lunch, but also receiving an email at work that doesn’t immediately appeal to us. Two: We ponder and weigh our options, analyzing the situation and considering it rationally, especially if the consequences are serious. Three: We absorb important information and sleep on it, or go do something completely different—and then we follow our instincts. That’s intuition.
In his book The Smart Unconscious, Dijksterhuis calls that third method of making decisions the “unconscious” approach. As he puts it, intuition can be seen as a series of unconscious processes that take place in our brains, which operate like supercomputers, picking up many more verbal and non-verbal signals than our conscious minds do and processing them rapidly (see box, “The intuitive brain”).
We generally make the best decisions based on intuition, Dijksterhuis says. He arrived at that insight in part due to research on how people decide to buy cars and homes, which are among the biggest purchases we make during our lives. Test subjects received information about four fictitious apartments with an overview of 12 different characteristics. The best had eight positive features and four negative ones. One group had to make a decision quickly, while another group was invited to take time to make a well-considered choice. A third group had to solve a puzzle before returning to choosing an apartment. The results were remarkable: About 35 percent of the fast deciders chose the apartment that had the highest number of positive characteristics. The percentage of conscious deciders who opted for that apartment exceeded 45. The unconscious deciders made the best choice: Nearly 60 percent chose the best apartment.
“Consciousness limits processing capacity,” emphasizes Dijksterhuis, who published the results of his study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Unconscious processes work much better for complex decisions. They can incorporate far more information.”
Ernest Hemingway described the unconscious process that way in A Moveable Feast, his memoirs about his first experiences as a writer. He only stopped writing once he knew what he wanted to write about the next day, and then he went and did something else. That way, he deliberately set his unconscious thought processes in motion until the next morning. Hemingway lived by that approach; he believed it made him a better writer. Now scientists are taking it a step further: Using intuition, we make better predictions, make better purchases and perform better athletically.
But how do you do it? How do you make decisions using your intuition? The Intelligent Optimist presents five golden rules.
Rule 1: Take three steps
Dijksterhuis developed a three-step plan for making decisions. First, collect as much information as possible. By doing so, Dijksterhuis says you feed the unconscious processes as much as you can. Then go do something else, something completely unrelated to the decision. That puts the unconscious processes to work on everything you very deliberately fed them. After a good night’s sleep or a few hours of
doing something else, you’ll automatically know the answer, according to Dijksterhuis. But we’re not done yet: In the third step, take a close look at a couple more things, making sure there aren’t any hidden pitfalls.
The process derailed for Rekers when she failed to listen to her sense that she should turn down the job, even though she preferred to do something else. Things go wrong for others in the third step: They are too convinced by their own gut instincts and forget to take a critical look before finalizing their decisions.
So when you’re buying a car—after gathering the facts about what you need the car for, what condition it’s in, the price, etc.—and if you’ve let the matter rest and still feel it’s a good decision, you need to be cautious. Carefully consider whether the price is right for the condition of the car. Do you need a large car if you’ll only be commuting to work? Considerations like those are “precision work,” in the words of Dijksterhuis, and the conscious mind works well for them.
Rule 2: Don’t overestimate the importance of words
Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments with test subjects who were allowed to choose one of five posters. Participants were given directions how to choose: One had to think carefully and describe what was beautiful and what was not and why; another simply had to express a choice. They were allowed to take the posters home with them and were asked later about how satisfied they were with their choices.
Surprisingly, the participants who had thought long and hard about their choices and had to justify their reasons were less satisfied in retrospect. They had exaggerated the importance of the arguments they had to express in words. It may be easier to explain the aesthetic appeal of a cartoon drawing than a figurative painting, but most people tire less quickly of the latter, for reasons that are difficult to describe.
“We have the strong tendency to value only that which we can express in words,” Gigerenzer says. However, he adds, “good intuition goes farther than logic.”
Rule 3: Rely on your experience
In a test by researcher Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, golfers were asked to pay particularly close attention to their swings. Then they were allowed to have another go, but this time they were distracted by a different assignment: They had to count the number of ticking noises played on a tape recorder before continuing to play.
You’d think that the moment of concentration before the swing would lead to better results, but the opposite was true. When the golfers were distracted by the tape recorder, they played better. Even more striking: The golfers with more experience performed significantly better after being distracted. The inexperienced golfers did better when they spent time concentrating in silence first.
This study and similar research—including a study with handball players that showed similar results—are in line with what Margaret Rekers experienced. Another job interview took her to a treatment center for dyslexia. But it didn’t feel right either, she says. She wasn’t able to pinpoint the reason for her discomfort at the time, but she could define it in retrospect. “Things were piled up to the ceiling all over the place,” she explains. “It was chaotic there, whereas I know from experience that structure and order are important to people with dyslexia.” Rekers’ past experience gave her an uneasy feeling about the situation, which allowed her to make the right choice and pass up the job.
Rule 4: Distrust knowledge
Although experience feeds relevant information to our unconscious minds, there is also a danger of overloading on information. Gigerenzer discovered as much during his experiments predicting sports results. People who knew a lot about a particular sport turned out to be worse at predicting outcomes than novices. That’s why a group of amateurs more often predicted the winner of a major tournament like Wimbledon than a group of experts, according to Sacha Serwe of the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany.
That’s a logical phenomenon, too: Someone who doesn’t know anything about soccer will think the team with the familiar name will do better than the unknown team from a smaller town. And that’s generally the case, Gigerenzer believes, but the experts think: The best team’s star player is benched for an injury; there’s a conflict with the trainer; the other team’s goalkeeper is at the top of his game. “The layman has less information,” Gigerenzer concludes. “But he has the key information he needs to make predictions.”
The same mechanism applies to buying electronic devices, according to Gigerenzer. He has a simple rule of thumb: Buy what you know. “If you doubt whether to choose a Sony or Philips as opposed to an unknown brand, buy the one you’ve already heard of,” he advises. “There’s a reason why you’ve heard of it: Those products are good, and intuition helps you remember that.”
Rule 5: Watch out for preconceptions and prejudices
The human brain constantly places people and situations into categories. This ongoing process has a major advantage: Thanks to our brains’ lightning-quick analyses, we don’t have to decide consciously each time whether a person slicing a pepper in the kitchen is preparing food or intending to attack us.
But this unconscious process of pigeonholing has a negative side. It unintentionally facilitates racism; people who constantly hear negative reports about certain
parts of the population will have negative emotions about people who belong to those ethnic groups. Such preconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes often crop up
unconsciously. Gigerenzer refers to a hiring committee deciding which job applicant to choose: “Research shows that people prefer to choose someone of their own ethnicity and gender,” he says. So white males tend to prefer other white men. But, Gigerenzer knows, “that may not be in the team’s best interests at all.”
Gigerenzer is sure of one thing: “We can’t make good decisions without intuition.” That is why he believes it’s important not just to consider all the pros and cons, but also to take time to let information simmer in the background. “Good ideas and strokes of inspiration are necessary, and we only get them thanks to intuition. How often do we suddenly come up with the solution to a problem we’ve been wrestling with for ages at a time when we aren’t thinking about it?”
Intuition plays a major role in Rekers’ life these days. “I make decisions with my head, my emotions and my body,” she says. “All three are important.”
Robert Visscher  followed the three-step plan suggested by Ap Dijksterhuis last year when he bought a house. He’s still happy with his choice.
Photo: Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock.com

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Knowing without words

Margaret Rekers was planning to start her own business, but a job opened up that suited her perfectly—or at least that’s what everyone else told her. The educational psychologist and youth coach in Bodegraven, the Netherlands, took the job. “I let myself be convinced,” she says. “I worked there for a year, but I shouldn’t have.”
The work was interesting and her colleagues were pleasant, so that wasn’t the problem. “It wasn’t in line with the direction I wanted to take,” Rekers says. She quit a year later and launched her own business. I wish I had followed my intuition, she thought in retrospect. “It didn’t feel right from the start.”
The trepidation Rekers experienced at the time illustrates the prejudices against our intuition. It’s difficult for us to act on something as undefinedand hard to explain as a gut feeling.
“It doesn’t feel right.” Just try using that line of reasoning with your spouse or well-meaning parents when you’re offered a solid job during an economic crisis. It’s one reason we often ignore the feeling. And that’s too bad, because when we tap into our intuition effectively, it helps us make better decisions.
These claims clash with the prevailing dogma of rational decision-making, according to Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. “Many people still view intuition as suspect because people aren’t exactly sure what the unconscious does,” he says. “That suspicion is entirely unjustified.”
Our intuition works for all sorts of decisions, from our careers to the choices we face in the changing rooms of a clothing store. Recent scientific research shows that the best results are not achieved by subjecting every single option to extensive scrutiny, nor by making snap judgments. Intuition-based decisions made by letting information sink in and listening to our gut feelings tend to produce much better results.
It’s not always easy—and not just because we expect the people around us to disapprove. Our unconscious minds also have their own pitfalls. We shouldn’t completely disengage our conscious minds either.
How can we optimize the way we use the intelligence of our unconscious? When can we trust our intuition, and when should we exercise healthy skepticism?
Essentially, there are three ways to make a choice, says Ap Dijksterhuis, professor of the psychology of the unconscious at Radboud University Nijmegen. One: We make a quick decision without thinking about it. That’s how we make most of our decisions throughout the day, like mindlessly making sandwiches to take along for lunch, but also receiving an email at work that doesn’t immediately appeal to us. Two: We ponder and weigh our options, analyzing the situation and considering it rationally, especially if the consequences are serious. Three: We absorb important information and sleep on it, or go do something completely different—and then we follow our instincts. That’s intuition.
In his book The Smart Unconscious, Dijksterhuis calls that third method of making decisions the “unconscious” approach. As he puts it, intuition can be seen as a series of unconscious processes that take place in our brains, which operate like supercomputers, picking up many more verbal and non-verbal signals than our conscious minds do and processing them rapidly (see box, “The intuitive brain”).
We generally make the best decisions based on intuition, Dijksterhuis says. He arrived at that insight in part due to research on how people decide to buy cars and homes, which are among the biggest purchases we make during our lives. Test subjects received information about four fictitious apartments with an overview of 12 different characteristics. The best had eight positive features and four negative ones. One group had to make a decision quickly, while another group was invited to take time to make a well-considered choice. A third group had to solve a puzzle before returning to choosing an apartment. The results were remarkable: About 35 percent of the fast deciders chose the apartment that had the highest number of positive characteristics. The percentage of conscious deciders who opted for that apartment exceeded 45. The unconscious deciders made the best choice: Nearly 60 percent chose the best apartment.
“Consciousness limits processing capacity,” emphasizes Dijksterhuis, who published the results of his study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Unconscious processes work much better for complex decisions. They can incorporate far more information.”
Ernest Hemingway described the unconscious process that way in A Moveable Feast, his memoirs about his first experiences as a writer. He only stopped writing once he knew what he wanted to write about the next day, and then he went and did something else. That way, he deliberately set his unconscious thought processes in motion until the next morning. Hemingway lived by that approach; he believed it made him a better writer. Now scientists are taking it a step further: Using intuition, we make better predictions, make better purchases and perform better athletically.
But how do you do it? How do you make decisions using your intuition? The Intelligent Optimist presents five golden rules.
Rule 1: Take three steps
Dijksterhuis developed a three-step plan for making decisions. First, collect as much information as possible. By doing so, Dijksterhuis says you feed the unconscious processes as much as you can. Then go do something else, something completely unrelated to the decision. That puts the unconscious processes to work on everything you very deliberately fed them. After a good night’s sleep or a few hours of
doing something else, you’ll automatically know the answer, according to Dijksterhuis. But we’re not done yet: In the third step, take a close look at a couple more things, making sure there aren’t any hidden pitfalls.
The process derailed for Rekers when she failed to listen to her sense that she should turn down the job, even though she preferred to do something else. Things go wrong for others in the third step: They are too convinced by their own gut instincts and forget to take a critical look before finalizing their decisions.
So when you’re buying a car—after gathering the facts about what you need the car for, what condition it’s in, the price, etc.—and if you’ve let the matter rest and still feel it’s a good decision, you need to be cautious. Carefully consider whether the price is right for the condition of the car. Do you need a large car if you’ll only be commuting to work? Considerations like those are “precision work,” in the words of Dijksterhuis, and the conscious mind works well for them.
Rule 2: Don’t overestimate the importance of words
Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments with test subjects who were allowed to choose one of five posters. Participants were given directions how to choose: One had to think carefully and describe what was beautiful and what was not and why; another simply had to express a choice. They were allowed to take the posters home with them and were asked later about how satisfied they were with their choices.
Surprisingly, the participants who had thought long and hard about their choices and had to justify their reasons were less satisfied in retrospect. They had exaggerated the importance of the arguments they had to express in words. It may be easier to explain the aesthetic appeal of a cartoon drawing than a figurative painting, but most people tire less quickly of the latter, for reasons that are difficult to describe.
“We have the strong tendency to value only that which we can express in words,” Gigerenzer says. However, he adds, “good intuition goes farther than logic.”
Rule 3: Rely on your experience
In a test by researcher Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, golfers were asked to pay particularly close attention to their swings. Then they were allowed to have another go, but this time they were distracted by a different assignment: They had to count the number of ticking noises played on a tape recorder before continuing to play.
You’d think that the moment of concentration before the swing would lead to better results, but the opposite was true. When the golfers were distracted by the tape recorder, they played better. Even more striking: The golfers with more experience performed significantly better after being distracted. The inexperienced golfers did better when they spent time concentrating in silence first.
This study and similar research—including a study with handball players that showed similar results—are in line with what Margaret Rekers experienced. Another job interview took her to a treatment center for dyslexia. But it didn’t feel right either, she says. She wasn’t able to pinpoint the reason for her discomfort at the time, but she could define it in retrospect. “Things were piled up to the ceiling all over the place,” she explains. “It was chaotic there, whereas I know from experience that structure and order are important to people with dyslexia.” Rekers’ past experience gave her an uneasy feeling about the situation, which allowed her to make the right choice and pass up the job.
Rule 4: Distrust knowledge
Although experience feeds relevant information to our unconscious minds, there is also a danger of overloading on information. Gigerenzer discovered as much during his experiments predicting sports results. People who knew a lot about a particular sport turned out to be worse at predicting outcomes than novices. That’s why a group of amateurs more often predicted the winner of a major tournament like Wimbledon than a group of experts, according to Sacha Serwe of the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany.
That’s a logical phenomenon, too: Someone who doesn’t know anything about soccer will think the team with the familiar name will do better than the unknown team from a smaller town. And that’s generally the case, Gigerenzer believes, but the experts think: The best team’s star player is benched for an injury; there’s a conflict with the trainer; the other team’s goalkeeper is at the top of his game. “The layman has less information,” Gigerenzer concludes. “But he has the key information he needs to make predictions.”
The same mechanism applies to buying electronic devices, according to Gigerenzer. He has a simple rule of thumb: Buy what you know. “If you doubt whether to choose a Sony or Philips as opposed to an unknown brand, buy the one you’ve already heard of,” he advises. “There’s a reason why you’ve heard of it: Those products are good, and intuition helps you remember that.”
Rule 5: Watch out for preconceptions and prejudices
The human brain constantly places people and situations into categories. This ongoing process has a major advantage: Thanks to our brains’ lightning-quick analyses, we don’t have to decide consciously each time whether a person slicing a pepper in the kitchen is preparing food or intending to attack us.
But this unconscious process of pigeonholing has a negative side. It unintentionally facilitates racism; people who constantly hear negative reports about certain
parts of the population will have negative emotions about people who belong to those ethnic groups. Such preconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes often crop up
unconsciously. Gigerenzer refers to a hiring committee deciding which job applicant to choose: “Research shows that people prefer to choose someone of their own ethnicity and gender,” he says. So white males tend to prefer other white men. But, Gigerenzer knows, “that may not be in the team’s best interests at all.”
Gigerenzer is sure of one thing: “We can’t make good decisions without intuition.” That is why he believes it’s important not just to consider all the pros and cons, but also to take time to let information simmer in the background. “Good ideas and strokes of inspiration are necessary, and we only get them thanks to intuition. How often do we suddenly come up with the solution to a problem we’ve been wrestling with for ages at a time when we aren’t thinking about it?”
Intuition plays a major role in Rekers’ life these days. “I make decisions with my head, my emotions and my body,” she says. “All three are important.”
Robert Visscher  followed the three-step plan suggested by Ap Dijksterhuis last year when he bought a house. He’s still happy with his choice.
Photo: Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock.com

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