Women's Intuition and Other Facts of Life PDF Print E-mail
Written by Barbara Drescher   



[in-too-ish-uhn, -tyoo-]


  1. direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.

  2. a fact, truth, etc., perceived in this way.

  3. a keen and quick insight.


Word Origin & History


late 15c., from M.Fr. intuition , from L.L. intuitionem  (nom. intuitio )"a looking at, consideration," from L. intuitus , pp. of intueri  "look at, consider," from in-  "at, on" + tueri  "to look at, watch over"(see tuition).

I love Dictionary.com, don't you? It's so handy.  

Of course some words, when used in context, take on meanings which barely resemble the dictionary definition. For example, I doubt that many reading this post would be satisfied with the dictionary definition of "skeptic". However, this definition of intuition is very close to the one used by most psychologists who study the phenomenon. In essence, intuition is a process of direct knowledge – knowing without taking the time to reason. Intuition is implicit knowledge.

Intuition has been explained by pseudoscientists in ways ranging from the unlikely to the ridiculous, but the phenomenon itself is very real. In fact, we could not survive without it. We would be unable perform tasks as simple as recognizing objects or walking on the deck of boat. Most of our interactions with the world depend on implicit knowledge. When, for example, we hold a pencil at arm's length, then let it go, we know intuitively that it will fall to the floor.  

Psychologists have studied reasoning and decision-making for decades, identifying common errors and attempting to explain them. The first step in understanding these failures is the realization that brain development occurs through experience. Our experiences do not just shape our knowledge; they also shape how we obtain that knowledge. Experience provides us with rules of thumb we call heuristics. They do not always lead us to the most accurate answer, but they get us through the day.

Heuristics are implicit, even when applied to reasoning. They are performed with little effort and even less conscious thought. Most logical, rational thought involves conscious and deliberate reasoning. This is time consuming and costly; it is not always the most efficient way to deal with the world. In addition, rational thought is only possible when we have enough of the right information and we know what to do with that information.  

Experience, practice, study – these things lead to a form of expertise dubbed practical wisdom. The best teachers, doctors, and even janitors (in Schwarz & Sharpe's book on the subject) learn this wisdom as implicitly as they use it. It is the overreliance on such gut feelings that causes problems and this overreliance is usually attributable to overconfidence (or even arrogance).

"In some cases, intuition is built upon deep experience. It is not a casual process or a hunch about an area of limited expertise. Where the trouble can come in with intuition is when we apply it in areas where we don’t have this deep knowledge." – Robert E. Gunther in The Truth About Using Facts and Intuition in Decision Making 

There is irony in that our intuitions about our own expertise are often wrong (e.g., The Dunning-Kruger Effect). Add the myriad of confirmation and self-serving biases to which we are all vulnerable (e.g., it makes sense to me, therefore it is correct) and the result is the target of skeptical activism. The meta-irony (if I may make up a word) is that skeptics are not immune to it themselves.

Women's Intuition  

Probably the most widely known and the studied form of intuition is the decoding of facial expressions, often referred to as affective intuition, although it involves more than recognizing emotion. It is certainly true that people tend to believe that men and women differ in nonverbal communication styles. What may surprise you is that those beliefs tend to be generally accurate.

Consistent findings that women outperform men in identifying, discriminating, and interpreting nonverbal communication including facial expressions, gestures, body language, and inflections reach back to the 1970s. There are also findings which suggest that women encode expressions more accurately. Men and women differ in a vast array of nonverbal behaviors – smiling, touching others, proximity to others, laughing, nodding, gestures, and so on.  

What I find most interesting is that explicit knowledge cannot account for gender differences in decoding nonverbal expressions. Although women have been found to have greater explicit knowledge in this area, gender differences remain when this knowledge is controlled for.

The search for explanations for these gender differences has produced a number of plausible hypotheses. One researcher (Ickes) claims that differences in performance are not due to differences actual abilities, but rather motivation to live up to a stereotype. Although expectation is a major factor in virtually all behaviors, this conclusion should be taken with caution. recent years. Ickes' methods of testing empathy involve participants recording interpretations of an individual's thoughts and feelings while viewing a videotaped version of a personal interaction – in some cases an interaction in which the participant took part. This is a very different task from identifying whether a couple depicted in a photo is truly a couple or whether a smile is genuine. For example, in lie detection tasks women have been found to be more trusting than men. It should not be surprising, then, that the relationship between gender and decoding becomes more complex when verbal and nonverbal cues are mixed.  

Gender differences in affective intuition may be due to biological differences; there is no denying the role of hormones in emotion. However, precious few effects can be attributed to nature alone. There is evidence of differences in the expressive cues given by adults when interacting with male and female infants which, of course, affects learning of these cues. Another hypothesis, that differences in communication reflect differences in status, is also plausible since women are still, on average, lower in status than men. And so the science moves forward.

On a final note, it is important that we do not fall into the trap of oversimplifying what these differences mean in everyday life. They do not imply that women are superior to men or vice versa. They should not open the door to claims that any small sample of women, particularly a homogeneous sample such as "women managers", are expected to differ from a similar sample of men. Although differences in nonverbal communication are greater and more reliable than, say, differences in math ability, there is no reason at this time to think that they are of any practical significance.  

But practical significance is an issue in and of itself.


Some good reading on the subject:  

Myers, D.G., (2002). Intuition: Its powers and perils. Yale University Press.

Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink. Back Bay Books.  

Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2010). Practical Wisdom: The right way to do the right thing. New York: The Penguin Group.

Briton, N.J. & Hall, J.A. (1995). Beliefs about female and male nonverbal communication. Sex Roles, 32 (1/2), 79-90.  

Lieberman, M.D. (2000). Intuition: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 109-137.

Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious. New York: Viking  

Pretz, J.E. & Sentman Totz, K. (2006). Measuring individual differences in affective, heuristic, and holistic intuition. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1247-1257.

Ickes, W., Gesn, P. R., & Graham, T. (2000). Gender differences in empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation? Personal Relationships, 7(1), 95-109.  Hall, J. A. (2006). Nonverbal behavior, status, and gender: How do we understand their relations?. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(4), 384-391.

Rosip, J. C., & Hall, J. A. (2004). Knowledge of nonverbal cues, gender, and nonverbal decoding accuracy. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 28(4), 267-286.


Barbara Drescher teaches research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include perception, attention, learning, and reasoning. At ICBSEverywhere.com, Barbara evaluates claims and research, discusses education, and promotes science and skepticism.