Intuition is confident abduction

Last updated Nov 7, 2020 | Originally published Nov 7, 2020

# Intuition is confident abductive-inferential thinking

In a recent episode of Hello Monday, Jessi Hempel interviews Dr. Natalie Nixon on creativity and her new book, The Creativity Leap. Natalie’s PhD in Design Management—plus her work in fashion, design, and business—led her to a catchy and compelling description of creative work. We accomplish creative work, she says, “by toggling between wonder and rigour.”

In the podcast conversation, Jessi and Natalie talk about intuition—and I was struck by something. “We don’t talk about intuition,” Natalie notes at about 6 minutes in. “We don’t talk about intuition in business school, in law school, or in medical school.” And yet, she says, “I observed that really successful leaders—especially really successful startup leaders—in their origin stories, there’s always this moment where ‘Something told me not to do the deal. Something told me to work with her over him.’ […] Every successful leader really reckons with incorporating acting on their intuition to make decisions.” Jessi agrees, noting that intuition comes up often in her interviews with leaders on Hello Monday as leaders cite it as the reason for their success.

The thing is, just because we don’t name intuition doesn’t mean we aren’t talking about it. That’s because intuition is really just confident, logical thinking.

Charles Sanders Peirce was a philosopher. He investigated how we inquire into and discover new knowledge.1 Before Peirce, we generally recognized the logical processes of deduction and induction. Deductive thinking helps us identify what must be true about a situation in order to explain it. When we deduce something, we look at the general rules and principles we know of and draw specific conclusions from that evidence. Inductive thinking involves drawing general conclusions from specific, limited evidence.

Peirce argued that effective reasoning follows a pattern: we determine the specific consequences of an idea (deduction), and then we judge whether the available evidence fits that idea and its consequences (induction). But how do we develop ideas?2

Abduction is the name of the logical process Peirce described for developing ideas. To think abductively means to generate and choose ideas that fit the situation at hand. A good idea should be verifiable—we should be able to use evidence to judge its fit—and should help us resolve the situation at hand. Peirce also had criteria to help choose the best ideas to test. He suggested that we should strive to conserve resources (e.g., those that most are most efficiently verifiable and usable in the situation), identify the most valuable ideas (specifically the “uberty” of an idea, or how likely it is that a possible idea might bring about an innovation), and the most relevant ideas (e.g., those that may apply beyond our current focus, too).3

Abduction is clearly an important step in any innovative process—but it is no more important than testing and using the ideas you generate. What, then, if you don’t have enough evidence to truly test and prove your ideas?

The process Peirce described—abduction, deduction, induction—is the ideal. However, we do not always have time and energy to follow the process diligently. Instead, we quickly make creative judgements based on a few observed qualities. This requires two related processes.4 The first Peirce called “abductory induction,” and it combines the first and last step of the inquiry process. We observe the qualities of the situation, and we generate possible ideas to resolve it based on those observations. The second process is known as “inference to the best explanation” (IBE).5 IBE is exactly what it sounds like. Given a number of possible ways of resolving a problem, choose the best one. (Peirce’s criteria, noted above, apply here.)

So what does all this have to do with intuition?

Intuition is the confident application of these shorthand logical approaches to creative problem solving. As Jessi and Natalie noted, we aren’t often explicitly taught about strengthening our intuition. Yet, everything we learn supports its development. The more we have to draw on in order to pull into the processes described above, the better our intuitive decisions will be.

I say that intuition is the confident application of these processes because they only work when we follow through. In reality, we use abductory induction and IBE all the time. When we engage in creative problem solving, we’re not only using information from the evidence in front of us. We’re drawing on our lived experience and our knowledge base. Even if we don’t directly recall or reference that background information, it is drawn into the creativity of abduction and it defines the general rules and principles we use in deduction. It provides us with the heuristics we use when engaging in IBE. But if we don’t have a bias towards action and instead operate with e.g., perfectionism, we fail to actually execute on these ideas. Thus, we need to have confidence in our abductory induction and IBE processes.

All this is simply a gentle challenge of the idea that we don’t talk about intuition. I think that all knowledge management practices and forms of education are actually fundamentally about strengthening our intuition.

That said, Natalie’s work is fascinating. I recommend the episode of Hello Monday and plan on picking up her book!

  1. In this article, my reading of Peirce comes from the writing of William Mcauliffe↩︎

  2. Peirce was actually specifically concerned with science and hypotheses generation, selection, and testing. Here I refer to generating, selecting, testing, and using ideas to apply these concepts to problem-solving more broadly. ↩︎

  3. He also cautioned not to produce ideas that stop the inquiry process—e.g., magical thinking, or by suggesting that whatever happened must be a complete mystery. ↩︎

  4. Actually, the difference between these two processes is the subject of substantive, controversial debate. This is in part because the scholars who study inference to the best explanation have also used Peirce’s term “abduction” to describe it. This understandably caused extensive confusion, but also probably a lot of philosophical debates and scholarship, so maybe it was for the best. ↩︎

  5. Philosopher Gilbert Harman originally described and named this process… and mistakenly suggested it was the same thing as abduction. ↩︎