Awareness of the body is related to intuition – but can sometimes lead to the wrong decisions!

A few months ago I did a little experiment. For a month, I tried to make all my decisions based on intuition and gut feeling, rather than logically thinking things through. This proved harder than it sounds, and some interesting things happened. It was quite a freaky experience, in the sense that many things worked out pretty well, even though I had no idea where all these decisions were going to end up. Some pretty big changes happened that month, including decisions about how I earn a living and where I live, so if you wanted to do something similar, think hard about that. Or trust your gut, whatever.

During this month I looked for ways to improve intuitive decision making. Most of what I found related to psychic intuitions, and I tried some of these exercises. Unfortunately the scientific literature is pretty sparse on this topic, so I was pretty interested to hear about Barney Dunn and colleagues’ (2010) recent paper looking into how interoception influences intuitive decision making.

If you’re wondering, interoception is not a hit film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It refers to the amount that people are aware of their own bodily sensations. Surprisingly, I found that there’s a little controversy in psychology over when bodily responses occur in the decision making process. The debate is over whether bodily signals influence decision making, or whether they are simply a product of it. This is what the paper was looking into, through two tests of whether accuracy in a cognitive processing task is related to the ability to perceive the feelings in the body.

In the first test, participants were shown a set of images, which evoke different emotions (e.g, fear, neutral, positive). For each image, they self-rated the images for valence (positive to negative) and arousal (whether it makes you feel more alert or more sleepy/dull). At the same time, they were hooked up to an ECG machine, measuring their heartbeat. Next everyone had to count their heartbeats over various time frames, while an ECG measured their actual number of heartbeats. This tests their interoceptive skills.

What they are doing here, is comparing the bodily response to the pictures with the actual response indicated by the ECG. The hypothesis is that in people with high interoceptive sensitivity (as measured in the heartbeat counting task), the difference between actual and reported arousal would be closer than that of less interoceptive individuals. And this is what the results showed, for the arousal ratings but not the valence ratings.

The second study is much more interesting. Participants play a simulated gambling game. Four decks of cards are presented, two of which are profitable on average, two of which aren’t. Over time, participants should get a feel for which decks help them win and which help them lose. And so they did – overall. people showed a preference for the profitable decks, and this got stronger as the game went on. Just like in the last study, this intuitive decision making was related to the degree of interoceptive sensitivity the participants had.

These results support the idea that interoception can improve intuitive decision making, at least in the conditions these things were measured and tested in here. Perhaps improving interoception in people might also improve their decision making in this task? It would be interesting to compare some experienced meditators to novices.

Be warned, however, that interoception can be a mixed blessing, depending on whether the intuitions are leading you to good or bad decisions. For 27% of people in the second study, their intuition was leading them to the unprofitable decks!

That’s a pretty tough one to explain. Why would your intuition lead you to a negative outcome? Perhaps there’s some interplay between the intuitions and your beliefs about what’s good and bad. Maybe you’re a shy person who doesn’t want to get excited in public, and your intuition leads you to decision that prevent you having to jump for joy in front of other people.

I emailed Barney Dunn to ask about this, thinking low self-esteem might explain this effect. He said “While we didn’t directly control for self esteem, the effects still hold when controlling for depression and anxiety. You might expect depression in particular to be a proxy for low self esteem.” So maybe I’m wrong, but either way it doesn’t seem to be a simple intuition = good, no intuition = bad formula. It might be more complex than that.


Dunn, B. D., Galton, H., Morgan, R., Evans, D., Oliver, C., Meyer, M., Cusack, R., Lawrence, A. D., Dalgleish, T. (2010). Listening to your heart: How interoception shapes emotion experience and intuitive decision-making. Psychological Science, 21, 1835-1844

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