Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
How do you feel about the validity or non-validity of intuition?
I think intuition — that “feeling in your gut” — is absolutely valid. I also think, like any tool, you have to know when to use it and when not to and what its limits are.
For example, let’s say I’ve just met you, and you and I are able to talk for five minutes like normal human beings do (i.e., neither of us is “on” for whatever reason). At the end of those five minutes, I will probably have already decided not just whether I like you or not, but also how much I feel about it in any direction: whether you’re the sort of person I will want to make part of my life, for the rest of my life, whether I will go out of my way to avoid having anything to do with you, or somewhere in between. I know this because, to be immodest about it, my intuitions about who people are (and how I personally will respond to them) are very good indeed, and over the course of time I have generally come to trust those first impressions.
(Before this statement makes you panic, I will note that after five minutes of conversation I will not give you your “friend of Scalzi” grading, because a) that’s not fair and b) just because I think I could take to you (or not) doesn’t mean you feel the same about me and c) why rush things? If we’re going to become friends, it will happen as it will and there’s no reason to push it; likewise if we’re not going to be friends I want that process to be as graceful as possible on both sides so no one gets their feelings hurt.)
Let’s note that “intuition” here doesn’t simply mean I naturally have some raw magical talent for knowing about people. “Intuition” isn’t magic, it’s subconscious processing of things you already know or do. My “intuition” about people comes from my own personal value system, my desires when it comes to others, years of observing people relating to other people and to me, a writer’s attention to detail and a general understanding of the human being as a social animal — and a reasonably good understanding of who I am and what I know about people, my culture and the specific situation I’m in.
And yes, I know, that sounds like a lot. But remember, I’m not running all these processes in the foreground. In the foreground I’m simply giving my attention to you, because it’s polite and because I want to; I’m curious about people. All of this is stuff running in the background, and they only make their presence known when suddenly I’m hit with it all at once — a moment of gestalt in which I know how I think of you. I trust that gestalt impression because I know that “intuition” isn’t magic — it doesn’t just come out of the air, but through my brain crunching data in a backroom and then sending a messenger out when it’s done.
Are my intuitions about whether I will like people ever wrong? I’ve not known them to be, although in some sense it’s not the right question. If I trust my intuitions about people then that will have a great effect about my feelings toward them — and then of course the intuition becomes correct, doesn’t it. In this specific example one has to acknowledge that intuitions are useful only in the moment, and that time can change people (including you), and that generally speaking it’s worth checking in every once in a while to see if things are different with someone you’ve had an intuition about.
(Also, I’d note that just because I feel I’d like you doesn’t mean that I would give you the keys to my car or the routing number for my bank accounts or divulge my deepest secrets to you. There are some people I like who I don’t trust, and vice versa.)
If you know that “intuition” is shorthand for “brain crunching data in a back room” then you have a good idea of when you can trust it and when you can’t — basically, it depends on the amount and quality of data your brain has to work with. This is why there can be times when your gut feeling isn’t all you need to make a decision.
For example, anything that involves you signing a contract, where you are not absolutely a master of every technical detail that’s in the contract, especially when there’s a personable person in front of you, holding that contract and a pen. That person is there (not necessarily maliciously, but not necessarily not maliciously, either) to make you feel confident that your intuition is sufficient and that you know what you need to know to sign on the line which is dotted. And the fact is, you probably don’t. It’s not that your intuition is lying to you, it’s that your brain doesn’t have the right data to work on.
Knowing the limits of intuition is what keeps intuition useful. Listen to it but always recognize it’s not everything — and that it can be confounded if someone’s making an effort at it. You know who are really good at intuition? Con artists. Their intuitions about whose intuitions about them are easily messed with are pretty good. This is why intuition isn’t the end of the process of getting to know someone or a situation; it’s a first report. You should, you know, spend more time to calibrate.