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9 Aug 2010

Instinct versus Intuition

Frequently, I’m asked about the difference between instinct and intuition. The question is difficult because everyday conversation has a gender bias. Men tend to prefer the word “instinct” over “intuition” to describe their emotional processes while women tend to prefer the reverse. So, listening skills are important.

Analogously, instinct is to intuition what an accented note is to a song. Just as an accent adds a particular emphasis to a specific note in the song, instinct adds a particular emphasis to an emotion in the intuitive process. Very simply, there are three types of instincts: survival, paternal and maternal. Survival protects our well being through fight or flight. It accentuates emotions such as guardedness or avoidance. Paternal extends our dominance and control, accentuating emotions such as aggressiveness and competitiveness. Maternal protects and nurtures others, accentuating emotions such as protectiveness and sacrifice.

While instincts can serve us well in urgent, severe situations, they can lead us astray and allow us to be easily manipulated in modern life’s intricacies. For instance, instinctively lashing out at someone for a threatening act could have consequences in the workplace. Intuition would help us balance the emotions accentuated by that threat with the ones fearing the consequences to arrive at a pragmatic alternative fitting our context.

Returning to our musical analogy, this means that rather than reacting to the one accented note we are waiting to hear the whole song before we think and act. It also means that while there isn’t much to creating a single note, creating a song is more involved. Therefore, just as it takes practice to develop cognitive skills it also takes practice to develop intuitive ones. Instincts are innate and thus our default. As such they require very little, if any, development.

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