Therese Huston is the author of How Women Decide, a book that asks – and answers – tough questions about how we view women in the workplace. She wonders whether the perception of women as less decisive than men makes a difference in how women actually make decisions.
She’s also interested in the question of “women’s intuition,” so much so that she spends a whole chapter on whether women rely more on intuition than men do. And whether they prefer using intuition to facts when it comes to big decisions.
When she spoke to dozens of women during her research for the book, Huston found the issue to be more confusing than she imagined. She writes, “I heard this pattern again and again in my interviews with women. In relationship decisions, in job decisions, in medical decisions, women think long and hard about their choices, but once they’ve made those choices, even well-educated, powerful, strong women put them in a box labeled Going with My Gut; Following My Heart, Not My Head; or Trusting My Intuition.”
What’s going on here?
One revealing clue is that there is no such term as “men’s intuition.” Men are deemed to be more logical, more analytical, more reasoned, than women. And it’s in part, because women do tend to talk more about gut feelings, instincts, and other feeling-based reasons for doing what they do. And they’re actually advised that this is a good thing.
Huston writes, “In 2015, a columnist for Psychology Today advised, “Women, practice this mantra: trust your inner knowledge, your intuition, that gut feeling . . . If you don’t trust someone when making a deal, go with that feeling.” But admit it? No.” Remember, it counseled, ‘feelings are not credible in a man’s world.’”
Huston includes a questionnaire in the book to help readers determine whether they prefer to use an analytical style or intuitive style when they make decisions (It’s also possible to score as “adaptive,” which means you are comfortable using either or both, depending on the situation and the importance of the issue.)
The word intuition comes from Latin intueri “look at, consider,” and “in.” So the word means ‘consider from within.’ It’s a way of knowing before you know the facts, and it can be powerful. I rely on intuition often when the stakes are low. Should we eat at this new restaurant or that one? Which necklace should I buy my mother as a gift? Analysis just clogs up the works on decisions like these – there may not even be a right or wrong answer to choose, anyway.
Intuition is fast and often accompanied by a strong emotional push in one direction or another. I just wrote that I trust my intuition on low-stakes decisions, but I know that many people also trust their intuition when the stakes are incredibly high. Ask anyone who has a dangerous job: firefighters, police officers, those serving in the military or flying planes. They will all tell you that they listen to their intuition closely. They reply on it to keep them alive when they don’t have or can’t know all the facts. When you have to make a life-or-death decision in seconds, you learn to rely on your instincts.
So intuition can be a lifesaver, an important part of your decision-making processes. How can you hone yours, or learn to trust it more?
You learn to trust intuition by getting quick feedback. When you make a decision based on intuition and it turns out to be a good one, your brain makes a note of it. And, being human, we start to construct a story afterward that ties together the tiny things we might have noticed that nudged us toward that quick decision. A person’s microexpressions that tipped us off to his untrustworthiness. The dingy lobby that indicated the restaurant wasn’t going to be very good. The manager being a few minutes late for your interview. In retrospect, your decision was an obvious one.
Huston writes about a surgeon at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington who trains her medical residents to learn to trust their intuition. She trains at a level one trauma center, a facility that treats the most severely injured or ill patients, sometimes flying them in from hundreds of miles away.
Huston writes, “Several times a week, she and her team need to make rapid decisions about whether there’s time to get a CT scan or whether the patient needs to be rushed to surgery without any further information. Skilled observations and expert intuitions are crucial.” Amanda trains her residents to make these fast, accurate judgments with minimal information in various ways.
One way is to get immediate feedback on your intuition. She directs her residents to stop in the doorway of every patient they visit for a few seconds. She tells them to use their intuition to decide whether the patient is better today or worse.
““It’s just a guess,” she explained, “and in a moment, they’ll get to look at the patient’s chart and learn whether their guess was right or wrong.” Amanda wants them to tune in to the signs, to notice the subtle cues they can connect with the vast textbook knowledge they already have. She needs her fellow physicians to recognize when they can see a little but know a lot.”
That’s the definition of good intuition.