Updated: Nov 26, 2021
‘I always trust my intuition,’ said my friend, who’s just broken up with a terrible partner, not spotting the irony. Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?
Sometimes, you should absolutely trust your intuition; other times, don’t trust it one little bit. To say ‘I always trust my intuition’ is as daft as a carpenter saying ‘I alway use a hammer.’ Sometimes you should use a hammer; other times, it’s the wrong tool for the job. The tricky part, of course, is knowing which is which… and that’s one of the things they teach in carpentry school.
It’s strange, isn't it, how we’ve switched from regarding the unconscious as dark and dangerous – the deep Freudian well from which all violence and anger and hatred bubbles up, and which must be kept down at all costs – to regarding it as natural and therefore sacred and always wise and pure? (Cancer is ‘natural.’ Don’t make it good.) Both are true and neither is true.
Is your intuition telling you to trust your intuition?
If right now you’re arcing up a bit because you know that your intuition is always wise and has never let you down, you might want to notice two things. The first is that you’re relying on your intuition to confirm your confidence that your intuition is reliable. And if you can’t see the problem with that, then you need better thinking tools than just intuition.
Here’s the second thing: ‘always’ and ‘never’ are dangerous (sometimes. Not always). If your intuition is ‘always’ wise and ‘never’ lets you down, then all I have to do is show you one time your intuition isn’t accurate and your claim falls to pieces. So, let me have a go, shall I? Three goes, actually.
Use your superb intuition to answer these questions. True answers in the next paragraph, called ‘The next paragraph.’ No peeking.
1. A bat and a ball together cost $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
2. Get a bunch of people into a room and see if they share a birthday. How many need to be in the room for there to be a 50% probability that two of them share the same birthday? I once asked a group of people this question and someone guessed ‘more than a thousand’: that’s a long way off the mark.
3. If you shuffle and deal a pack of cards, how many times would you have to deal the pack to get the same outcome, ie the exact same order of 52 cards? An hour? All day? A week? Six months?
The next paragraph
1. Nope, not a dollar. If the bat costs a dollar, then the ball costs 10 cents. In fact, the bat needs to cost $1.05, leaving 5 cents for the ball. D’oh! More on this.
2. 365 is a lot of days, right? So how come you only need 23 people in the room for there to be a 50% chance two will share a birthday? Not convinced? Here’s the maths.
3. It’s almost certainly never happened. If you shuffle a pack and lay out the cards, it’s virtually certain that no-one has ever seen that arrangement of cards. In fact, if you’d been around at the start of the universe, 12,900,000,000 years ago and dealt every second until right now, you probably still wouldn’t have dealt the same arrangement twice. Here’s Stephen Fry to explain.
So, when should you trust your intuition?
It’s certainly true that we are only consciously aware of a tiny part of what we’re experiencing. As Peter Allen put it in a song, ‘I realise something that I’ve always known…’
When you’re on public transport and that person gets on and you’re immediately on high alert? That’s your intuition, and you’d be wise not to make eye contact and to put your bag on the seat next to you.
When you know your teenager is lying to you? That’s your intuition, and you’re right to be suspicious about that new friend she is seeing so much of but you’ve never met.
When that salesman swears to you that this is a great deal but if you don’t sign now you’re going to miss out? That’s your intuition, and you’d be smart to take the risk of missing out while you ask around. (Last week I nearly signed up for a new energy deal until I read the terrible Google reviews.)
And when shouldn’t you trust your intuition?
When ‘common sense’ says something must be true, look before you leap. If you trusted common sense, for example, you’d believe the sun goes around the earth instead of the other way around. (Ludwig Wittgenstein asked a great question about this: if the earth went around the sun, what would that look like? Ha!)
When you’re considering something that requires you to calculate big numbers, don’t rely on your intuition. If a million seconds was about 11 days ago, how long ago was a billion seconds? Answer: 31 years. (Here’s more.)
When you’re making a decision that involves lots of moving parts, don’t rely on your intuition. Car dealers know this, which is why they do everything in their power to get you to take a test drive. Truth is, pretty much any clean unfamiliar car feels great if you take it out for a spin – ooh, what does this button do? But that doesn’t make it a good deal. The dealer is trying to get you to fall in love, because then you’ll act irrationally. TV does the same thing when it gets a celebrity to sell you something, like they should know or care what you need.
Speaking of which, when you’re in love you’re not rational. Certainly when you’re in that obsessed, can’t-get-enough-of-that-person mode – it’s called limerence – you’re not logical. In fact, there’s even discussion as to whether this state of mind is a mental disorder.
And there’s nothing wrong with this state of mind. In fact, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. But don’t whatever you do give the object of your affection access to your bank details, the keys to your house or access to what’s under your clothes on the basis that your intuition tells you this is the one. You might, for one thing, want to consider your track record. If this is your fifth go around and the previous four have been total disasters, chances are this one will be too and your process for picking romantic partners is rubbish. Or, you know, you could just trust your intuition, like last time and the time before that...
Great question. So what? Does it matter? Yes it does, actually.
If your intuition tells you that the universe has something special in mind for you and nudges you with amazing coincidences, then at the very least you need to know what an amazing coincidence. Meeting someone who shares a birthday with you isn’t an amazing anything. In fact, it’s probably already happened a few times. Just meet 22 other people and the odds are better than even.
If your intuition tells you that you should give up your job and that movie stardom awaits, you need to think twice and look before you leap, because otherwise you’ll land on the huge pile of other people with the same dream who also aren’t movie stars.
If your intuition tells you that you should give up your job, you need to take care. And if someone tells you all you need to do is to ‘manifest’ your success, then you need better gurus.
The secret of success is this: there is no secret of success. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
Usually I put a link here, like this one, so you can call me to make an appointment. Maybe this time I won't, or maybe I will.