Intuition & Emotions on Par with Logic

Until very recently, fields of human study such as economics made the assumption that people were “rational”. That they could be counted on to make decisions that were in their best interest. In a century dominated by the rise of physics, computers and other “hard” sciences, logic and the triumph of the left brain over the right brain seemed inevitable.

But what if intuition and emotions are not aspects of our humanity that we must learn to suppress less they interfere with our logical brains, but actually high performance decision making tools?

Today’s New York Times features an article about the value of “hunches” on the battlefield in Iraq:

The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan…

Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and… they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.

Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do…

The key quote in the article:

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”

When I first met my friend Bill Somerville of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, he talked extensively about the role of intuition in philanthropy. I ended up sending him a copy of the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, in which the author argues convincingly that in many circumstances, humans make better decisions when they rely on their first gut instinct rather than over thinking a situation.

What strikes me about the New York Times article, the position put forward by Somerville and the book Blink, is how radically they fly in the face of the celebrated core on which modern philanthropy is based: The Logic Model.

According to conventional wisdom in organized philanthropy, a well designed logic model that lays out why certain interventions will result in the intended outcomes is the mark of a disciplined funder. It is not just that this approach looks down at intuition and other “right brain” human tools. It is that conventional wisdom rejects “right brain” approaches as being a mark of lack of rigor and discipline. It rejects not just conclusions based on these tools, but the validity of the tools themselves.

Last October, in the thick of the financial crisis, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the coming Behavioral Revolution:

Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.

But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m wondering if the best selling book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, might just be required reading for the next generation of philanthropic leaders… or leaders in every field.


  1. Great stuff. I actually don’t think that intuition and logic models are incompatible in the least. The two basic tools of research are theories and data. There’s not much room for intuition in data, though there is a little (you have to be able to make sound judgments about outliers, for example). But what data you choose to collect and how you collect it must be informed by some kind of theory about how the world works, and theories are all about intuition. In fact, logic models themselves are more theoretical than anything else. One’s use of the logic model has to be rigorous or else it isn’t very helpful, but logic model design necessarily incorporates many assumptions and guesses that are usually informed by qualitative factors such as anecdotal and personal experience. It’s easy to think of examples of data-collecting that don’t use the right brain at all–sets of numbers that are scientifically rigorous but completely miss the point. I don’t think that’s what we want in philanthropy.

  2. I agree Ian. That’s why I titled the post Intuition & Emotion on Par with Logic instead of suggesting that they were superior to logic.

    My point wasn’t to disparage logic models so much as it was to call out the way that proponents of conventional logic model driven philanthropy dismiss the relevancy of right brain approaches.

  3. Great post! I think this has an implication on measurement of social impact. We need to find ways to systematically incorporate intuition (or Gestalt perception) into social impact measurement rather than relying solely on logical/analytical approach.

  4. Slavish adherence to logic models and financial ratios makes for great “grantmakers.”

    Changemakers — successful philanthropists — at their core — have a marvelous sense of intuition and it is often this sixth sense which leads them to look for “logical” reasons to support an intuition-driven impulse.

    Which raises the question of whether better philanthropic “matches” are made when funders/donors sit down and interact with nonprofit leaders (i.e. board directors), than when paper meets paper, that is, when written proposals that meet written guidelines and priorities (and logic models) are funded.

    Renata Rafferty
    Author, “Smart Generosity: Everything You Need to Know About Charity, Philanthropy and Giving Wisely”

  5. Paul Brest says:

    I agree with Sean and Ian. The article is essentially about how one develops and uses expertise.
    The sergeant depicted in the article, whose affective responses led him to sense the presence of an I.E.D. before he could articulate how he knew, is typical of an expert in any field — a firefighter, physician, or program officer–whose intuitions develop through a mixture of theory, practice, and reflection on practice. It is conscious, cognitive after-the-fact reflection about the situation and what went right or wrong that hones the intuitions for the next on-the-spot judgment.
    for those who want to read more about the process, Gary Klein has written much about it.

  6. Liz Wainger says:

    There is no computer, no technology better than the human brain–its logic and its unconscious processing. In our left brained society, we too often discount what in the old days used to be called “gut” feelings based on intuition and experience. The sergeant in the NY Times article teaches an invaluable lesson to all of us–to listen to those feelings even when you can’t explain them. They don’t just come out of no where–they come out of another side that we should all be in touch with more often, especially in philanthropy.

  7. Thanks for all your comments. It is interesting to me that no one has rejected the point of my post, while at the same time so many people (especially on Twitter) have expressed thanks because they feel that my point is not embraced by the field. How is it that no one disagrees, but at the same time so many people in our fiend feel that their “right brain” tendencies are not valued?

  8. The pendulum is currently swinging from a traditional feel-good charity to a more hard-nosed approach towards social impact. I guess “right brain” tendencies are excessively suppressed in the process. We have a still long way to go towards more rational, data-driven approach, but I hope eventually we can reach an optimal balance.