The official blog of GuideOn, the Veteran Career Platform


Which Way to Go?

Where do I go? What do I do know? These are among the first thoughts when a military service member reaches the point of transition. While we are aware of the decisions having to be made, we may not be as aware of the deep mental processes at hand.

Intuition and Listening to Your Gut

There is an interesting study from 1997,published in Science called, “Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy”.

There is great relevance here with respect to decisions as to whether we cooperate with or defect against the other 'players' based off of data and signaling. The research suggests that our intuition operates nearly twice as fast as our conscious mind and that it leads us towards the most advantageous strategy before we are consciously aware of why that strategy is the best.

The study sought to analyze whether overt reasoning in complex situations was preceded by non-conscious intuition that assisted in decision making. Meaning, does our gut really tell us what to do. The participants consisted of normal individuals and patients who had damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain involved in making decisions. Each set of participants was given four decks of cards, with the individual cards corresponding to a specific monetary reward or loss. The participants were instructed to pull cards from the decks with the goal of winning the greatest amount of money and losing the least amount of money; however, two of the decks were stacked disadvantageously.

By measuring the subject’s skin conductance response (SCR) the researchers determined that the normal participants were able to develop a “hunch” about which two decks were bad by card 50 – on average – based off of SCR’s; however, the same participants could not explain why the decks were bad conceptually until card 80. The patients with ventromedial cortex damage did not generate any SCR’s, and even after they realized which decks were bad they continued to pull from the disadvantageous ones. 

Bechara and his fellow researchers concluded that, “In normal individuals, non-conscious biases guide behavior before conscious knowledge does. Without the help of such biases, overt knowledge may be insufficient to ensure advantageous behavior.” 

Our intuition is likely built up through some combination of nature and nurture and is continually refined over the course of our lifetimes. The value that it provides us is undeniable, but it is important to know when to intrinsically trust it – e.g. for split second decisions such as combat – and when to utilize it in conjunction with our System 2.  The subconscious nature of our intuition creates potential pitfalls if we allow biases and faulty assessments of previous experiences to cloud critical decisions and introspective analysis (Daniel Kahneman’s research provides a nice framework on how best to utilize our System 1 and System 2 in conjunction to make the best possible decisions given outside constraints). Use your gut feelings and intuition when asking the interviewer questions. You will learn of great benefits of the company and culture, so listening carefully to avoid biases is important to making the right decisions.

Intuition Training and Pitfalls

When we look at intuition training, Malcolm Gladwell seems to do the best job of summarizing the top research. His writings allude to the fact that intuition can be honed through experience and explicit training, but the tricky part is trying to achieve a balance and knowing when to trust your intuition and knowing when it’s leading you to the wrong conclusion.

In “The Naked Face”, Gladwell explains how we can get a read on peoples' thoughts and actions through their non-verbal mannerisms and facial expressions, and how some people are incredibly adept at rapidly and correctly assessing what these expressions mean. Gladwell mentions that the FACS (Facial Coding Action System) can be taught over the course of several weeks, potentially bringing a trainee up to the level of some of the experts. Could you imagine walking into an interview equipped with a skill to read your interviewers mannerisms and facial expressions?!

Honing in on intuition can also present some pitfalls. “What We Know Without Knowing How” explains some of the potential pitfalls associated with using our intuition. It states that, “Interviewers generally think they can better predict a candidate’s future job performance through a meeting than through evaluating test scores and grades – but research has shown reliance on intuition can backfire in this situation.” 

Diving into cutting edge research on how to make better decisions and optimize our analytical skills by understanding and refining our thought processes over the course of our careers will aid and support us during intense transition periods. Our System 1 (Intuition) and System 2 (Deliberate Logic) enable us to identify immensely valuable insights, especially when analyzing complicated decisions, such as choosing which career path and industry to pursue after serving in the military. By continuing to refine our intuition and incorporating data-driven objective analysis we can steel ourselves against natural biases and better determine the arenas where we can do our best work and the roles that we are best suited for following our time in uniform.

~The GuideOn Blog Team