Intuitive Intelligence

In his keynote at PELeCON 2012, Alec Couros shared a video of a magical moment of learning. Ending his plea for us to think of learning as something to be openly shared, he showed this touching documentation of a young girl learning to overcome her fear and make her first ski jump.

Alec pulled out the vulnerability of this moment, and how when we are at moments of great learning we are often the most vulnerable; something which can be difficult to share. However, I took something different from it.

As the girl stands at the top of the slope surveying the scene she starts going running through the facts; the rational arguments as to why she should or shouldn’t take on the jump. She weighs up all the factors, tries to frame the situation intellectually in such a way that it doesn’t seem so bad. She asks if it is any steeper than what she is used to, but shows the real answer is of little importance to her as she answers herself before her off camera companion can. The facts don’t matter.

Even though she intellectually convinces herself that it is ‘just a bigger 20’, you can still feel the emotional wall between herself and the jump, none of the rationalising makes that any less, and ultimately it just comes down to pushing herself over, overcoming the fear and reaching a point where her intuition lets her go over the edge.

This struck a chord with me largely because I have spent many years being a very rational decision maker. I have always weighed up all the options, and gone with what seems intellectually the best way to go. However, around this time last year I began to realise this isn’t always the best way. I was sat on a train on my way back from an interview at a primary school. I knew it was time for a change, and although I was waiting to hear I was pretty confident that I had got the job. I also knew that there was a job coming up at Plymouth University, which I had applied for but had no guarantees of getting. With a coincidentally apt Friendly Fires song in my headphones, I tried to decide what to do.

As I waited for the call from the school I did exactly what the girl in the video does; weighed up the pros and cons of working in a school or a University, taking a risk or going for something more known, moving close to friends or to somewhere where I knew practically no one. When the time came none of that made any difference; I still felt that almost physical edge I had to push myself over and the gut decision I made had nothing to do with the rationalising. I took a jump; it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.

In their book ‘New Kinds of Smart‘, Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argue that one of the key aspects of intelligence is that it can be intuitive. We often depict the rationalising as a hallmark of intelligent people, yet in the real world it has been shown that it doesn’t lead to the right decisions. Psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis has investigated the difference between decisions people make when they are encouraged to deeply consider all factors, and when they are forced to think intuitively. His findings? In the case of complex decisions participants who thought intuitively made the better decisions. This is supported by another study cited by Claxton and Lucas looking at intuitive and reasoned choices made by college students about their studies; those who thought intuitively were happier with their outcomes.

Yet so often in the case of complex decisions we stand on this intuitive edge that must be crossed, and rationalise why we should stay exactly where we are. In ‘Linchpin‘, Seth Godin characterises this feeling of holding back as ‘The Resistance’; a force which comes from the recesses of our brain designed to protect us from physical harm in our days as hunter gatherers. He argues that in modern society this backfires and often paralyses us from making the best decisions by over rationalising and convincing ourselves to be mediocre. Julian Smith characterises it as ‘The Flinch‘; and suggests that this should be overcome by deliberately conditioning oneself to push over that emotional edge every time it is felt, for it is here where the best, life changing decisions lie.

To me that video is so touching because it shows the futility of over rationalising decisions, but despite this the huge emotional strength it takes to ignore the thoughts of ‘The Resistance’, to overcome ‘The Flinch’. It isn’t easy to make a decision that is intuitive, but often this is the most intelligent decision and leads to the most personal learning. I’m not sure how you teach this, I am still learning it myself, but I am convinced there is something in valuing ‘intuitive intelligence’ more highly and encouraging people to put themselves in situations where they feel that ledge and have to jump off it.

As for the actual jump; I’m not sure anyone can do that for you.



Open Scholarship and Connected Learning Alec Couros (@courosa) #pelc12

Girls first ski jump.

Lucas, B. and Claxton, G. (2010) New Kinds of Smart; How the science of learnable intelligence if changing education (Open University Press)

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004) ‘Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making‘, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 87(5), Nov 2004, 586-598.

Godin, S. (2010) Linchpin; Are you indispensable? How to drive your career and create a remarkable future (Piatkus Books)

Smith, J. (2011) The Flinch (The Domino Project).


3 responses to “Intuitive Intelligence”

  1. Julia Skinner (@theheadsoffice) Avatar

    Great post Oliver. I enjoyed the video when I first saw it but you have put it right into my decision making process now. Thank you!

  2. […] and ‘social’ which are familiar are still thought provoking, and pave the way for some of the more unfamiliar arguments such as intelligence being ‘intuitive’ and ‘ethical’. The balance is also struck well between research and ideas and challenge […]

  3. KeroBero Avatar

    Looking back over this topic. I wonder whether intuition is more capable of readily accessing your value system than a rational pros and cons internal check-list. It’s not easy to assign internal value to information, even if we decide to give it a score of maybe 1/5. I feel that it might be similar to empathy in a way. Easy to talk about, assign it, but harder to actually feel internally.

    Thinking intuitively probably encourages us to look at what stands out the most to us, what doesn’t appeal, and the things that float between that aren’t really relevant. Where as the logical system with its value assigned labels that we try to use, just gets us extremely confused.

    I suspect the end result of the rational approach is that we try to break down everything and weigh exactly, where as the intuitive approach is more having a broad rough guideline. Since we aren’t focusing on specifics, there is less opportunity for regret or buyers remorse.

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