Where does intuition come from?

Just reading this question, it is likely that you generated a response quickly and easily, seemingly without thinking. Maybe your response went something like this: Intuitions pop into our heads. They are feelings in our gut. They seem true without need for further investigation.

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image of Alycia Hund
Psychology Professor Alycia Hund

If so, your response process illustrates the power of intuition. Dictionary definitions note that intuition is “a keen and quick insight or the quality or ability of having such direct perception or quick insight.” In the social sciences, we seek to understand intuition as part of one system of thinking, sometimes called System 1. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Memorial Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes System 1 as fast thinking that is automatic, nearly effortless, and outside our conscious awareness or voluntary control.

So, where do our intuitions come from? They arise from associative processes—we track regularities in our environments to provide quick judgments about how things are going.

Kahneman puts it this way, “System 1 has been shaped by evolution to provide a continuous assessment of the main problems that an organism must solve to survive: How are things going? Is there a threat or a major opportunity? Is everything normal? Should I approach or avoid?”

This helps us construct a story of our life that links our past, present, and future, offering an interpretation of what is happening. Valid intuitions require an environment that is regular enough to be predictable and opportunities to learn regularities through practice and feedback, usually over long periods of time as we build expertise. Experts, such as professional athletes and clinicians, use intuitive processes to make sophisticated judgments based on long histories of regularity detection. We all rely on intuitions to interpret everyday activities, such as whom we like and what to do next.

Alycia Hund, professor, Department of Psychology

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