Decision-Making: Instinct vs. Intuition


Last week, we delved into the interplay between data and intuition within the realm of decision-making. However, it is essential to discern that when we invoke the concept of intuition, we are referring to a phenomenon distinct from mere instinct. Instinct, a primal survival mechanism ingrained in various organisms, primarily serves as a warning against danger. In contrast, intuition, a hallmark of human cognition, serves as a guiding light that steers us toward future opportunities rather than present threats. When our gut feeling signals trouble, it could be wise to heed our instinct. However, instinct falls short when we seek guidance on positive courses of action in the future. Instinct resides in our visceral core, our gut, while intuition dwells in the depths of our hearts. How then can we distinguish between these two, and how, when facing a dilemma, can we be certain whether we are acting on instinct or intuition?

When facing a dilemma, how can we be certain whether we are acting on instinct or intuition?

The Expansive “I”: To unlock this enigma, we must broaden our perspective regarding the first-person pronoun, “I.” “I” can denote the individual staring back at us in the mirror. Yet, “I” can also signify our roles as parents, partners, children, or professionals. “I” can further extend to encompass the collective “we” – our extended family or our community. In the grandest scope, when we perceive ourselves as part of the human race, “we” becomes a meaningful fragment in a vast, universal system.

The pronoun “you” is equally flexible and could signify either an individual or the entirety of humanity. Consider the phrase “I love you.” It could signify “the humanity within me loves and cherishes the humanity within you.” For those with faith, “I” and “you” might even encompass a dimension of the Divine, making the phrase an expression of “the Divine within me loving you for the spark of the Divine within you.”

The broader the connotation of “I” or “we,” the more likely it is that we are speaking from a place of intuition rather than instinct. The “I” in “I love ice cream” embodies a narrow self, driven by instinctual desire. Conversely, the “I” in “I love music” or “I love my family” represents a deeper, more intuitive form of affection.

The Evolving Self: Hence, when you find yourself saying, “I want…” it is beneficial to pause for a moment and evaluate the expansiveness of the “I” that craves. Is it the impulse of an individual enslaved by sugar addiction, for example, and lacking self-discipline yearning for chocolate, or is it the intricate, profound, thinking, feeling, spiritual, emotional, and social being whose desires transcend mere objects of addiction? The desire for chocolate is likely an instinct-driven yearning, while the pursuit of value and virtue, even if it encompasses a delectable meal that satisfies more than just physical cravings, is driven by an intuitive necessity.

This same analysis can be readily applied to ambitions in the realm of business and profession. The scope of the “I” that aspires to amass great wealth must be scrutinized. Does it belong to the ego, driven by grandiosity and the quest for power and ostentatious trappings? Or does it align with the human “I,” motivated by the desire for freedom to effect positive change in the world?

In infancy, our concept of “I” remains limited in scope, with “I want” predominantly dictated by biological and ego-driven needs. As we mature, our sense of identity undergoes expansion, encompassing a more extensive “we.”

We can extend our sense of self beyond the biological to encompass the social, spiritual, intellectual, professional, and universal dimensions of our identities.

In the context of instinct and intuition, it is my contention that the usage of “I” in its narrower sense typically corresponds to instinct. Phrases such as “I feel” or “I worry,” when confined to the narrower confines of the biological self, are likely reflective of instinct. However, when we extend our sense of self beyond the biological to encompass the social, spiritual, intellectual, professional, and universal dimensions, these same phrases tend to convey a more profound sense of intuition rather than mere instinct.

The “I” Experiment: For a deeper exploration of this notion, consider the following experiment:

  1. Initiate a sentence with “I want…”
  2. Subsequently, compose a few sentences commencing with “I am…” starting from the narrowest sense of “I.”
  3. Progressively expand the meaning of “I” in each subsequent sentence, pushing the boundaries of your identity as far as you are comfortable.
  4. Following this exercise, contemplate the broadest “I am” statement. In this expansive state, ponder what your true desires entail.
  5. From this perspective, begin a sentence with “I want…”

Upon comparing the first “I want” sentence with the last, you are likely to discern that the former unveils your instinctual desires, while the latter articulates your intuitive aspirations. Can you see the differences? Please share your thoughts in the comments.