Magazine article Work & Family Life

What Part Does Intuition Play in Decision-Making?

Magazine article Work & Family Life

What Part Does Intuition Play in Decision-Making?

Article excerpt

An announcement came over the PA system on a recent flight from West Palm Beach, Florida to Charlotte, North Carolina:

"Is there a doctor or nurse or paramedic aboard? We have a situation."

Nancy, an experienced emergency room nurse, offered to help. She was taken to an older woman who was complaining of chest pains and believed that she was having a heart attack. The captain had to make a decision whether to land the plane at the nearest airport.

After a few minutes with the stricken passenger, Nancy told the captain: "She is not having a heart attack now and I don't believe she will have one in the next hour."

The captain asked Nancy if she felt "comfortable" with this decision and Nancy said, "Absolutely." It was something, she remarked later, "I just knew."

With no diagnostic instruments, Nancy relied mainly on what she saw. As she explained: "The woman's color was good. Her skin was warm and dry. Her pulse was strong and regular. Her respirations were even and not rapid. I asked her about swelling in her legs and she said it was not a new condition. But she was very anxious and it helped to reassure her that I thought she was going to be okay."

Sometimes we have to trust our instincts

When there's no time to follow a formal decision-making process, we have to rely on our intuition-which is typically based on a combination of past experience and gut feeling. A leading advocate of this approach is cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, Ph.D., the author of Sources ofPower: How People Make Decisions (MIT Press).

Dr. Klein has studied how people make decisions in unpredictable situations under the pressure of time-and what Nancy did on the airplane was textbook Klein. That is, she looked at the sick passenger and asked herself: "What's going on here?" not "What should I do?" Her experience had, in a sense, "bought her" the ability to quickly size up a situation. The formal rules of decision-making were almost incidental.

How intuitive decision-making works

As Dr. Klein explains, over time we accumulate a storehouse of experience and we subconsciously categorize these experiences according to their outcome. Then, when we need to make a decision, we run "mental simulations," imagining how each course of action "plays out. …

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