Intuition, brain and business (4)

P1020478In Holland my book ‘The high speed brain’ appeared at the end of March 2015 and has reached the top 10. The book is about intuition, business and the brain. Until now there is no English translation. Some English speaking people asked me if it was possible to do a translation in English.  I hope I managed to do it in understandable English. And I also hope you can see it as a service. This is part 4 (starts with chapter 5). First 3 parts are to be found on this blog.

Chapter 5. Modern intuition gurus: Malcolm Gladwell and Gary Klein

If our story on the operation of intuition in the brain is right, then people who took good decisions based on intuition should be experienced experts in their field. Why? Because intuition is the result of the rapid co-operation of a wide range of neuro networks that have developed over the years. When you are older you have more and more extensive and faster neuro networks that work together. If you are somewhat more older, then your brain erodes, with the result that you are less able to remember details. However you discover patterns in situations more quickly. And having the ability of recognizing patterns is an important tool for quick decisions. This is the reason why our great leadership examples often are older. Mandela and Gandhi had less details in their head, but this special ability to recognize patterns.

This is important. Intuition works better if you are an expert and experienced on a subject. It is for that reason that some TV star recently said in an interview that her intuition had grown in the course of the years: ‘Over the years I’ve got clear where I can blindly trust my intuition ‘. If you know this you will be more cautious with following your intuition blindly when you’re inexperienced in a specific area. That caution can only benefit your decisions. And that beautiful things can happen when you’re following your intuition when you are an expert on a theme, is evidenced by the examples of intuition guru Malcolm Gladwell. So my message is absolutely not: don’t listen to your intuition. My message is: listen to your intuition, examine it and learn from it. Risks and trial and error often brings you further than being to careful.

Although he himself doesn’t seem to notice, the examples of the book Intuition of management thinker Malcolm Gladwell shows that intuition especially occurs with more experienced people. Let us have a look at five interesting examples from his book, in which intuition is employed.

Meanwhile we keep the basic idea of this book in mind: that intuition is information that our brain system delivers lightning fast, even before our consciousness has come to pass. At the time we seem to make an ‘impulsive’ or ‘moderate’ choice instinctively. But if you are expert in an area, your brain contains attractors and neuro networks that suddenly deliver independent solutions that are particularly accurate.

Let’s turn to Malcolm Gladwell now; someone who is important when it comes to intuition and business. Intuition takes place in our unconsciousness according to Malcolm Gladwell. It doesn’t matter to me how we call it. People call it the unconsciousness; others call it perhaps the automatic system such as the famous psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. What matters is that our brain will store information during our learning processes in neuro networks, which have the ready quickly when needed. These are our knowledge warehouses, but warehouses with Speedy Gonsalez as Messenger. They do their work every day. Today a number of times, if you think about it. And again tomorrow.

The 5 examples of Gladwell

I briefly will discuss five examples of Gladwell to show that it’s mostly experts out there who have a good intuition about a particular subject. The message is then: make sure your will become an expert on an area that is important to you. It starts with knowing your own mind. Who wants to use his intuition well, needs to know it very well. Its qualities, its meanders, its strength and weakness. Than you decisions will improve their quality.

The examples usually deal with process- or situation-oriented intuition, but in the last two examples as well with personal intuition. The first is intuition about conditions; the second is intuition about people. Although people are involved, intuition focuses primarily on a thing or a situation, not on the people. Intuition that focusses on people and their intentions is called personal intuition. So if you don’t trust someone in a first meeting because of his face, then that is personal intuition. And that intuition is shaped by knowledge and experience.

The examples

  1. The Kouros-example. The Getty museum bought in 1983 an sculpture. Experts thought it was descended from ancient times. They were very gilded with the sculpture and gave wide publicity to the discovery. Several art experts endorsed the authenticity of the sculpture. Frederico Zeri and Evelyn Harrison, however, were two experts who were consulted a little later. They got an immediate hunch separately from each other, that something was wrong with the sculpture. It was a drama for the Getty Museum that tried everything to determine that the kouros was an authentic work was, but the brain flash in which Zeri and Harrison had seen that the scuplture was a forgery turned out to be correct.
  1. The officer-example. The example of the Army Commander Paul Van Riper. This officer fought in Vietnam and was known for his unconventional approach. He learned on the battlefields that too detailed military-strategic analysis would confuse the decision makers. In preparation for one of his wars the Americans exerted with an intuitive working team against a strategic-analytical team. The first was called the Red Team, the latter the Blue Team. Van Riper was asked to take a seat in the Red Team. And his team won. How? Gladwell describes this in his book, but in short you can say that Van Riper was very practical and quickly anticipated on situations. He offered his team clear frames, but his men were supposed to do the implementation. ‘On the battlefield you should be able to act autonomously and yet within a framework. Very often you need to take high speed decisions. ‘

Wars are, according to Van Riper, chaotic, unpredictable and non-linear. He is not against analysis, but to stop the whole thing to look where the enemy is, in the middle of the fight, is not useful according to him. It just doesn’t work. Then the situation is similar as the situation with firemen and nurses. They should estimate situations very quickly and act immediately, ‘making use of experience, intuition and a rough mental situation sketch.’

However, his opponents were blueprint thinkers; people who had knowledge about the most recent military and technology. They made extensive analyses of the actions of the Red Team and wanted to control their people in too many details. Their decisions took more time and they operated slower.

Gladwell summarizes: ‘They had made a completely rational and thorough analysis, which included every conceivable eventuality, and yet the experts had overlooked a truth that they actually should have noticed immediately.

The nice thing about this example is that intuition beats analysis. We see here that experienced people that are effective don’t think in steps anymore. Once that you do this, you know that you are experienced on the subject. But still it is good to be aware of the restrictions of your intuition.

  1. The how-do-you-determine-what-a-bad-relationship-is-in-a-few-seconds-example. Gladwell tells the story of John Gottman who sees in a Flash whether a relationship will endure or not. His predictions are legendary. After years of studies of partner behaviour, and after perceiving faces during communication, he has determined that there is exactly one feature that lets you predict the course of a relationship, and this is disdain. If there is contempt between partners there is a big chance that the relationship will end up in pieces. Gottman sees it in a flash. This is an example of personal intuition.
  1. The fire department-example. This example is actually from Gary Klein, the great man behind the intuition-research in the USA. A very experienced firefighter stood with his team to extinguish a fire. Suddenly he got a hunch that they had to leave the room. And so they did. And fortunately, the floor collapsed as soon they had left. The firefighter has believed for years that he was paranormal.

Klein was not satisfied with this idea and asked through. Then it became apparent that the firefighter unconsciously observed certain details in a subtle way. The fire behaved not like a fire is supposed to behave, he thought in a flash. He always let his ear flaps standing up to feel how hot the fire was. While it is very silent was in the room, it was very hot. This combination the fire Lieutenant recognized as suspicious. No psychic ability, but an intuition that functioned wonderful.

  1. The police sample. Four police officers in the Bronx have killed an innocent man, because they suspected his behavior and thought that he had a weapon. This topic has been thoroughly investigated. What turned out was that the police men were not experienced, and that they made completely wrong assumptions about the behavior of the man. Eventually they were acquitted because police officers often have to decide very quickly in gunfights, and it is logical that they sometimes will make a mistake.

These are only a few examples from Gladwell’s book. What is striking in all those examples is that most successful intuition comes from experienced people. And exactly the inexperienced people turn out to make a wrong estimation. This confirms the idea that intuition is a product of knowledge and experience. More than that it’s a feeling. It’s a decision of our brain that has reviewed the situation faster than our consciousness. And this is especially the case if you have a lot of experience with that situation.

This confirms also the previously explained idea of neuro networks that work faster after experience. Like van Basten took the decision in the European Championship final to try something, officer Von Ripen and the firefighter took flash decisions that also had a good effect. Experience connects knowledge networks with peculiar details like smell, sound and temperature. A lot of knowledge and a lot of experience improve your pattern recognition and thereby your intuition. That’s what I conclude from it. And that is reflected in the following example I wrote for my website

At the end of January 2015 the Dutch Railway Company worked with a special custom schedule because weather agencies predicted snow showers. But the snow did not fall. It was a rainy day. Rail passengers reacted irritated. ‘The Railway Company adapts the time table to quickly.’ Meteorlogist John Havinga had the twittered the company the night before: ‘ I want apologies from the Railwats when the meadows stay green’ And next day it appeared that Havinga was right. How could this happen?

-Two computer models indicated that there would fall lot of snow. I have also seen these models. But with over 20 years of experience, I know that sometimes the circumstances in practice ensure that the computers are probably wrong.

In this example there were very strong west winds and there were too high air temperatures, according to Havinga.

-They were too much intimidated by computer models.

This example shows that data are limited. As opposed to experienced and knowledgeable people, they don’t take into account subtle influences. Havinga discussed the predictions one day before and people in his environment would recognize this as good intuition. What the example shows is that intuition no mystical affair, but a consequence of years of experience.

Interesting is also that computer data have their restrictions. They don’t mind high air temperatures and strong westerly winds. Here we see that the human component still has enough to add to computer data. This of course also concern business decisions. Also in business, in Government and in education the reliability of figures and models is important. You need to have some indicators and numbers seem safely then. However, this example shows the relativity of it. Maybe too much confidence in the computer data explains why more than half of the Fortune 500 companies of 1999 in the meantime disappeared.

Intuition is the sum of knowledge and experience, and thereby reliable in some (not all) cases, as we see in the last example. I would like to join the experienced military Van Riper who said that there is nothing against analysis or against intuition, but that there is something against the wrong use. Gut feeling is a useful tool, when we take into account its limits and when we take into account that we have to be knowledgeable and experienced in the field in which the gut feeling reveals.

The intuitive decision-making model by Gary Small

How our brain archives events and experiences, is not yet entirely clear, even though there are different views about it. Sciences doesn’t know exactly how you remember that your mom was angry a long time ago when you came home with muddy clothes. Not all neuroscientists are in agreement on this subject. Most of us have learned that there is a small brain part for everything. This part is for arithmetic, that one is for language, in this part we meet spatial awareness and finally we find the great library that we call memory; with books, movies and sound recordings, 3 D and interactive. All is stored in our little heads. And if you ever have spoken with a microbiologist you are not amazed about this. He certainly will have told you that small complete micro-universes exist in the world of the invisible.

The idea that each specialty has its own brain area is changing. It seems according to neuroscientist Goldberg that things are not so much stored in a particular brain share, but in cooperating neuro networks spread across various brain parts. Such a system of cooperating and connected networks is called attractors. An example. We always thought that our memory seated in the hippocampus. Now there are neuroscientists who believe that the hippocampus certainly play a role in memory, but more as an engine, like the machine that keeps a ship with memories in motion. The things we learn we store in attractors. Also the skills that come from the things we have learned derive from the attractor.

I imagine intuition, as explained earlier, as the activity from such an attractor. One event excites the total attractor. The art connoisseurs of Malcolm Gladwell saw the image and their art historian-attractor went to work. That attractor is packed with facts and experiences that are immediately deliverable. And with ‘ immediately ‘ I mean: in a flash! And consciousness doesn’t play a role at all in that flash. The total galaxy of data and patterns was made available to the art connoisseurs in a flash. And so fast that their consciousness could not follow.

Our brain is full of those patterns. If we have a lot of knowledge about or experience with a particular subject, then we can recognize the patterns relating to that subject. This will happen hundreds of times every day! We discern and untangle the pattern of that situation. And the ability to discern patterns seems to be a function of the attractor, a collection of interconnected neuro networks.

The famous intuition-& businessguru Gary Klein shows in his book something of the anatomy of our intuition. Patterns play an important role. Klein used the expression pattern recognition and he has even developed a model that he calls the pattern recognition process. Please note that it is not just a fuzzy model of something outside you; it is a model that describes how you do your things daily. According to Klein our intuition works as follows.

  1. We observe a situation. Visually or with our ears or nose.
  2. In that situation we experience signs of recognition: it reminds us of something that we know from previous situations. When you hear people for example say, that the management has had for years no interest in their opinions, then this reminds you to of all those other times that you have heard this before. You have encountered these remarkments the previous 7 times you had this kind of resistance. And you found out that this resistance is always expressed when you really are going to ask something from people, so: when their personal responsibility is addressed. This happened all the time and after three times you decided (possibly unconscious) that there was a pattern: people use disinterested behavior of managers (that indeed occurs) as an excuse for not taking responsibility. Your brain stores this pattern and from that moment on you recognize it in every other similar situation. And unfortunately you are not always right.

Important is that repetition of structures in events leads to recognizing patterns; whether or not justified. This appeals to us. The previous times you have responded in some way to that situation. And that way was successful. So you suggest that it is now also succesful. That way of responding is saved by your brain as an action script. When you have more experience you know that different situations demand different solutions and action scripts. Then you have different action scripts in your head. Different possibilities to react on a situation.

  1. The patterns that you recognize are activating action scripts. You can perceive them as act programs, incentives to go act. The Word program gives you perhaps the impression that I am talking about an extensive steps model, that you have to learn and train. But it is not about programming. In Klein’s theory it is all about options that are transformed from intuition to behavior immediately. You experience them as ideas for acting. This is easy to illustrate with an example. Imagine that you’ve completed an ICT education. After you have pass through your exams you discover that there is no work. Then there are certain possibilities. You can go and do another study. Make a trip around the world. Going to set up you own business. Become a pop singer or top athlete if you have the qualities. So you have different choices or options. Those options have been saved once in your brain somewhere subconsciously or consciously. And when you need them, the brain delivers them rapidly.
  2. The action scripts deliver you a choice. Interesting how that works, according to Gary Klein. First of all they are working in a flash. That speed amazes us, such as the speed of light. But the particles and cells and fabrics are capable to very high speed everywhere, so why not in the brain of the organism that we call human?

According to Klein our brain very quickly gives us a few possibilities. But how? With little ‘movies’. We, or rather our brain, enable ourselves for the practical situation and give us an idea of how that works in practice. As has been said: in a flash. Of milliseconds. In less than half a second the ‘movies’ go through our unconscious our brain makes a choice. Step 1, the imagine of possibilities, Klein calls mental simulation. The 2nd step he calls a mental model: these are beliefs, the beliefs from which you shall review the possibilities. In a flash.

  1. You make your choice and bring it into the situation. That will show if your brain has provided the right opportunity. Because intuitive hunches are not always good. And that’s totally understandable, because no matter how experienced and knowledgeable you are, no matter how much knowledge there is in your brain attractors, you will always miss some information and learn new things.

Klein doesn’t make the parallel of his 5 ‘ intuition’-steps with the so-called brain attractors. And that’s logical because at the time that he developed his model brain sciences were not that far then. We are further now and we can make the parallel. You know it. Brain attractors are: interconnected neuro networks. Let’s see how those relate to Klein’s intuition steps. I follow the steps here and will show how the brain generates Klein’s steps.

  1. Klein starts with perception. We observe a situation. We do this with our senses and instruments from our brain, such as the temporal lobe.
  2. Different brain areas are active in identifying what happens. Among these are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
  3. Our prefrontal cortex recognizes the pattern in the situation, using the attractors in the brain. As coordinator and director of the brain processes the prefrontal cortex is capable of a rapid overview of all attractors and the content of their information. And thus this brainpart collects rapidly a number of solutions on the basis of previous experiences that has transformed it into a pattern. And this happens before our consciousness comes in.
  4. The brain attractors deliver action scripts, options and possibilities. The choice is ultimately determined by the beliefs that someone has, and it is stored in the prefrontal cortex. Consciousness awakened not before the brain has done the biggest and most important share of the work. Intuition makes the choice, not the consciousness.
  5. After the choice you will act. There is a brain part involved in the initiation of action.

The parallels between Klein’s model and the brain sciences help us to find an answer to the question what intuition is. And that is useful. Because if we understand better how we can take advantage of the speed of our brain, our decisions will become better and faster. And we need it to take part in the speed of the 21 centurye .

But Klein’s model does more. We can also deal consciously with the 5 steps. When a situation arises, we can also use the quick and agile to succeed in something. In doing so, you could ask the following questions. This will make you more aware of what is happening in your unconscious, but if you ignore these questions the same will also happen though.

  1. What do I observe?
  2. How does my intuition judge this? (Don’t think too much but rely on the first ideas you get.)
  3. Do you recognize a pattern from previous situations? How did you solved it then?
  4. What options do you have? What do you think of them it if you assess them with your reference framework?
  5. What action will you unfold?

Don’t think too much about 1, 2 and 3. But do think at 4 and again at 5. Let your intuition and the automatisms do the job.


  1. Follow your heart and intuition, but the chances that this sends you in the right direction is most probable when you are knowledgeable and experienced in something.

2.Assess your intuitions.

  1. If you want to decide quickly on a subject that you don’t master, you can use the intuition of expertise of others.
  2. Evaluate for yourself regularly took decisions you took without thinking too long. Analyse how you came to your the decision. Put it in steps on paper, and see what the effect was.

To be continued

Bert Overbeek is personal and team coach and into management development. His work is much based on recent research about the human brain and mind. 


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