Intuition in Business

by Angela O’Connell and Pat Naylor

What is intuition?

Intuition is notoriously difficult to explain. It often communicates ideas to us through feelings or emotions, often without words. Intuition is knowing without knowing how you know. It is a hunch or a gut feeling that will keep nagging until you do something about it. It is described as

  • Having a hunch about something
  • Experiencing a spark of insight to solve a problem
  • Having psychic feeling or knowledge.

We are looking, in this case, at something between having a hunch and being psychic, and describe it as the spark that ignites creative thought.

In many cases, intuition can be attributed to a complex and sophisticated pattern-matching technique that enables our brain to compute instantaneously without conscious thought. Our peripheral senses pick up tens of thousands of pieces of information every day, which are stored away in our unconscious (subconscious) minds. When our intuition notices a pattern match, it will alert us in whatever way it knows will grab our attention.


A fire chief in the US knew exactly when to evacuate his men from a burning building before it collapsed. The chief did not know how he knew to do this and thought it might be paranormal. However, through skilful questioning it was determined that his senses were on high alert during a fire, making him subliminally aware of what was happening. He had previous experience of how floor boards felt underfoot when they were unstable, the smell of smoke before a building collapsed, the crackles and other sounds of the fire and the way that flames looked as they took over a building.

We are alert in the same way everyday and will notice if something follows a similar pattern match to a previous experience. The pattern might not be immediately obvious, but it will be there. For example, you might feel that you immediately ‘click’ with someone during an interview. By examining previous experiences of successful recruitment, you might find that there are many similarities between the applicants of which you were not immediately consciously aware.

Intuition is sometimes described along similar lines to imagination, inspiration, instinct and insight and indeed there are elements of all of these in our intuitive experiences.


There is the recorded case of a Formula One driver who braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend without knowing why – and as a result avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead, undoubtedly saving his life.

The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event. In hindsight he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.