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The Primacy of the Intuitive




The idea of the primacy of the intuitive may be more than an intriguing theoretical construct. Recent brain-based research shores up the theory with direct physiological evidence. LeDoux (1993) shows that mammalian brains are arranged so that incoming sensory information collected at the thalamus goes through the amygdala first before reaching the neocortex -- long considered the seat of conscious, cognitive reasoning. The amygdala, which is strongly associated with emotion, renders an initial good/bad, approach/avoid response and triggers an autonomic response when it perceives a threat. This initial response can be overridden by the neocortex’s cognitive processing, but the implications are clear. The human brain seems to have evolved to favor quick, intuitive judgement first, followed only afterwards by slower, cognitive, conscious processing (Damasio, 1994).

Dual process models of human thinking incorporating some version of intuition and cognition, are becoming more and more widely accepted in contemporary mainstream psychology (Haidt, 2000). While the nomenclature and details of each model vary, the differences between the various dual process models are dwarfed by the vast commonalities they share. Summarizing the work of 13 authors in psychology and philosophy, Haidt (2000) offers the following synthesis of the two aspects of the dual process model which I call respectively, the intuitive and the cognitive.







Table 1


Summary of Intuitive vs. Cognitive Processing Differences


Intuitive Aspect


Cognitive Aspect

Fast & Effortless


Slow & Effortful

Process is unintentional and is cued automatically


Process is intentional and consciously controllable

Process is generally inaccessible, only results show up consciously


Entire process is controllable and viewable in consciousness

Pattern matching, thought is metaphorical, holistic


Symbol manipulation, thought is truth preserving, analytical

Common to all mammals

Unique to humans over age 2 and perhaps some language-trained apes


Context dependent

Context independent


Platform dependent – inclusive to the brain and body that houses it

Platform independent – can be transmitted to other rule following organisms or machines




The intuitive aspect of thinking appears to be evolutionarily older and more established than the cognitive aspect. Many mammals demonstrate experience-based emotionally-related judgements as Solomon described, but few if any save humans demonstrate cognitive reasoning. (Zajonc, 1980). In addition, human infants clearly develop their ability to make experience-based emotionally-related, judgments well before they develop cognitive abilities (Guidano, 1987, p.25). In evolutionary terms then, cognition appears to still be in relatively embryonic stages of its development compared to intuitive thinking. Intuitive learning, then, may be the default style of human learning (Shirley & Langan-Fox, 1996).

Polanyi posited that intuitive thinking is more resistant to physical insult, and more established than cognitive reasoning (Polanyi, 1966). Supporting this is a long history of evidence revealing that individuals whose cognitive reasoning is often left damaged or destroyed from brain injury or illness are still able to reason intuitively on experimentally identical tasks (Reber, 1989; Shacter, 1987). ”While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.” (Polanyi, 1964, p.144).

Although William James did not theorize on intuition as such, he was certainly aware of the power of this aspect of thinking to sometimes confound cognition.


Why do we spend years straining after a certain scientific or practical problem, but all in vain – thought refusing to evolve the solution we desire? And why, some day, walking in the street with our attention miles away from the quest, does the answer saunter into our minds as carelessly as if it had never been called for – suggested possibly by the flowers on the bonnet of the lady in front of us, or possibly by nothing that we can discover? If reason can give us relief then, why did she not do so sooner? (James, 1890, p.45).



While the semantics used in the dual process models imply that intuitive thinking is unconscious, as compared with conscious, this may not be completely accurate. According to Guidano (1984) it might more accurately to refer to intuitive thinking processes as “superconscious…because they govern conscious processes without appearing in them.” (Guidano, 1984, p.35)

Intuitive thinking obviously improves under certain conditions, as evidenced in many of the above studies. It seems a given that cognitive reasoning can improve as well. Interestingly though, there is evidence from one study that, “…the former never caught up with the latter; that is, as subjects improved their ability to verbalize the rules that they were using, they also developed richer and more complex rules. Implicit [tacit] knowledge remained ahead of explicit knowledge.” (Reber, 1989, p.229). Volunteers’ intuitive thinking abilities always remained slightly richer and more sophisticated than their cognitive abilities.

In a study of 60 highly successful entrepreneurs working with companies whose revenues range between 2 million and 400 million dollars, all but one of the entrepreneurs revealed that they depend on their intuitive judgements, not their cognitive decision-making abilities, for their major business decisions. The outlier admitted later that his final decisions were inevitably intuitive (Ehringer, 1995). In a study of 3,000 executives, those at the top in a wide range of fields were also those who most often used and trusted the results of their intuitive judgements (Agor, 1986).

Volunteers who watched only a 30 second snippet of a teacher’s lecture were able to assess the teacher’s proficiency with almost 80% accuracy (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). Nearly the same results have come from 44 other studies. See Ambady and Rosenthal (1992).

What then of cognition? Assuming for the moment that intuitive thinking is indeed our primary system of thinking, what part does cognition actually play? It may be that the result of a thinking process, not the thinking process itself, is what manifests as a conscious, cognitive thought (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). What appears as cognitive reasoning may be more accurately described as ex post facto reasoning (Haidt, 2000). For example, participants in a dialogue each state a position, for example that they oppose abortion, and then proceed to explain cognitive arguments, like a lawyer, justifying their position. But even when a skillful and learned opponent defeats every single one of these espoused arguments, the protagonist may concede defeat, but rarely changes his mind. Why? Because our position on the issue was not a result of cognitive reasoning in the first place. It was in fact an intuitive judgement which is not directly amenable to cognitive modification by even the most expert of debaters. What appeared to be an accurate cognitive explanation of the protagonist’s reasoning was in fact an ex post facto justification of an intuitive judgement he made without knowing exactly how or why (Haidt, 2000).


Rather than following the ancient Greeks in worshipping reason, we should instead look for the roots of human intelligence, rationality, and virtue in what the mind does best: perception, intuition, and other mental operations that are quick, effortless, and generally quite accurate (Haidt, 2000, p.8).



Given this research, Senge’s disturbingly accurate assessment about the Achilles’ heel of conventional experiential learning comes into sharper focus. If intuitive thinking is more robust, more established and perennially more sophisticated than cognition, then any element of a conventional experiential learning program that is predicated on the primacy of cognitive reasoning may be restricting the effectiveness of the program. Is there, then, a fundamental and pragmatic difference between intuitive and cognitive thinking around which a new kind of experiential learning program might be designed?



Emotional Judgments & Intuitive thinking




Jerome Bruner (1986) supported the dual process distinction, noting that most of established Western philosophy and psychology to date speaks of the cognitive aspect as somehow more basic, more useful, and more worthy of study than the intuitive. Specifically, the “paradigmatic or logico-scientific mode” of thought employs categories, descriptions, explanations, and is generally concerned with collecting verifiable data, testing hypotheses and determining cause and effect (Bruner, 1986, p.13). In contrast, the narrative mode of thought concerns itself with constructing and playing through stories that make sense in a given situation. Bruner noted that it was this non-cognitive aspect of thinking that was much less understood, or perhaps more misunderstood. “We know a very great deal about the paradigmatic mode of thinking, and there have been developed over the millennia, powerful prosthetic devices for helping us carry on with its work: logic, mathematics, sciences…” (Bruner, 1986, p.13).

The cognitivist’s primary argument is an opposition to the irrational nature of emotions. The assumption of the primacy of cognitive reasoning comes from the very core of our Western scholarly tradition. Plato’s Timaeus describes the myth of ancient Greek gods creating human heads, with their precious cargo of reason. Only later did they add the rest of the human body, plagued by the passions, to transport the head through the mortal world. Stoic philosophers continued this tradition, establishing emotions as conceptual errors that forced humans to remain stranded in the misery of material existence (Solomon, 1993). Christian philosophers likewise denigrated emotions which they associated with desire, and thus, with sin. And many major philosophical rationalists including Liebniz, and Descartes, canonized reason just as Plato had, modeling their philosophies on the most cognitive reasoning process available at the time – Euclidean deduction (Haidt, 2000). William James and C.G. Lange (1922) guided the then embryonic field of psychology towards cognitivism with their classic theory that emotions are nothing more than conscious manifestations of physiological reactions. This emphasis on the primacy of the cognitive formed one of the core assumptions guiding the field of cognitive psychology in its infancy from the 1950s through the 1970s. “Humans are rational and logical and they reach conclusions and make decisions based on coherent patterns of reflection and analysis.” (Reber, 1993, p.13).

Some might contend that the literature in previous sections, while convincing, does not conclusively demonstrate the primacy of intuitive thinking because it has not addressed the fundamental claim of those who would oppose it. The fundamental claim of the cognitivists appears to be that the most effective aspect of reasoning, cognition, is that aspect which relates least to the emotions. This is so because emotions are irrational and detract from effective thinking. This assertion seems to be the foundation for much of the cognitivist’s 2,500 year incumbency. What if this claim turned out to be wrong? What if emotions were revealed to be at the very core of our most effective thinking? Two millennia ago, in his Rhetoric, Aristotle explained the emotion of anger in detail revealing the crucial element of judgement contained within it. According to Robert Solomon (1984, 1993), Aristotle may have been right. Emotions are neither simple physiological feelings, nor uncontrollable urges. Instead, emotions are complex, experience-based judgements. Solomon suggests that we can be angry – a judgement - without feeling angry. But we cannot feel angry without being angry. Thus the simple, physiological feeling of anger (or any other simple feeling) is very different from the robust judgement that is an emotion. We can influence our emotional judgements as much as we can influence any other type of meaningful judgement we make, which is to say very much over time, but not instantly nor on a whim. One cannot simply choose to not be angry. But this is no less rational or problematic than the fact that we cannot simply choose to judge a situation awkward or dangerous or interesting. These emotional judgements are established and “tuned” by years of experience-based learning (Damasio, 1994). Our emotions change as we come to consciously make meaning from new experiences, and so are “rational” in a very important sense. The philosopher David Hume seemed to agree, “…the ultimate ends of human actions can never…be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections” (Hume, 1965, p. 131).


Brain areas involved in gut feelings are far more ancient than the thin layers of neocortex, the centers for rational thought that enfold the very top of the brain. Hunches start much deeper in the brain. They are a function of the emotional centers that ring the brain stem atop the spinal cord – most particularly an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala and its associated neural circuitry. (Goleman, 1998, p.51).



Thus, emotion is a form of thinking with important survival value. It provides quick and economical information rapidly, without requiring any time consuming conceptual analysis. “Emotion is economical in the sense that a complex situational configuration and its relevance to the various goals and standards of the entire system can be summarized in an emotional experience.” (Safran & Greenberg, 1991, p.8). In other words, the brain is a connectionist system that tunes up slowly through experiential learning and then is able to evaluate complex systems quickly (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, 1991).







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