How often is your thinking intuitive compared to rational?

Today is May 27 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often is your thinking intuitive compared to rational?” Thinking about thinking is hard work. Getting through the day can be challenging enough for most people. Yet successful people who navigate the chaos spend time thinking about their thinking. In addition to assessing what they think, they also evaluate how they think.

In a Psychology Today article Dr. David Ludden explained economists have traditionally assumed that humans are rational decision makers. In recent decades, however, psychologists working in the field of behavioral economics have come to recognize that people are limited in their ability to make rational decisions. “In some cases, such as when we have the time and the cognitive resources to think things through, we can be quite rational in our decision making. But when we’re constrained by time we tend to make quick, gut-feeling decisions.”

In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains the so-called dual-process theory of decision making for lay audiences. According to dual-process theory, intuitive thinking is fast, while rational thinking is slow. And so, psychologists often use reaction time to determine whether a participant in their experiment is using an intuitive or rational approach to solving the problem at hand. Going with your gut isn’t necessarily bad. We humans have evolved some effective intuitions that usually lead us to very quick—and reasonably accurate—judgments, at least in the social realm.

Likewise, taking the time to make a rational decision can lead us to what psychologists call “paralysis by analysis.” That is, we’re unable to make a decision in real time because we’re bogged down by slow reasoning processes. For example, there’s no rational process for deciding what to order for lunch, and so we just have to go with whatever feels right. Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper noted “Serious rational criticism is so rare that it should be encouraged. Being too ready to defend oneself is more dangerous that being too ready to admit a mistake.” Over the years researchers have created a variety of tests to help people better understand the level of their intuitive thinking compared to rational decision making.

Back in 1998, researchers Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee, and Jordan Schwartz introduced something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures the milliseconds that it takes to connect pairs of ideas. The test is based on the concept that you will be faster putting together ideas you already associate with one another. For example, if you automatically associate female with family and male with career, then you will be fast placing nouns that relate to female/family or male/career in the columns. But if the columns are titled male/family and female/career and those are not the associations of your unconscious mind, it will take an extra millisecond or two to sort the nouns properly. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about IAT in his book Blink. He took one on race and was mortified to find out that his unconscious association with Caucasian-European was “good” and his association with African American was “bad”—even though Gladwell himself half-black!

In an interview later he said experience has taught him to disregard his first impressions of people and to take time to know them before passing any judgement. In other words, to improve his ability to think Gladwell started to emphasize rational over intuitive. But those associations Gladwell had, many of them were unconscious and we all have them to some degree.

Navigating the chaos with a deep understanding of your intuitive decision-making process compared to your rational thinking can be a useful strategy. For example, you can work with the unconscious to unearth these associations and align them more closely to your values and goals. When you do, you start to tap into the power of your unconscious and increase your self-awareness.

But even before you engage the unconscious as a productive partner, you can start living a life that is more responsive and less reactive simply by paying attention and noticing when what you do or say feels off-center. Take whatever additional time you need to think in a rational format instead of an intuitive one.

American philosopher and psychologist William James noted “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” While intuitive and rational modes of thinking are both useful, be sure to understand when to leverage each one appropriately. Otherwise you may wind up rearranging your prejudices. Doing so would be a disservice to yourself as you navigate the chaos.

How often is your thinking intuitive compared to rational?