Are Instinct and Insight Different Currencies or Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Just some quiet musings on the relationship between gut instinct and data-driven insight.

A few months ago, I really enjoyed hearing Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, speak at the MRS Annual Conference at Impact 2018. One point in particular, in the context of decision-making, made me scratch my head hard; instinct is the driver and insight comes second.

And that got me thinking about how instinct and insight interact with each other. Are the two different enough for one to rank ahead of the other, like the dollar against the pound? Or are they closely related enough to be two sides of the same coin?

True, the two are often pitched against each other as different. For instance, Deloitte Canada has a comical “Meet Gut Instinct” video campaign that poses gut instinct and insight as two alternatives in order to promote its insight services. The main character – called Gut Instinct – is played through a series of CollegeHumor-style scenes to reinforce the tagline “You can’t rely on gut alone”. The character is portrayed as making dubious decisions which doubtless would have been avoided with an insight-driven approach.

However, if we go back to Jayne-Anne Gadhia’s note about instinct and insight, it becomes clear that they are also two sides of the same coin, as she highlighted how a lot of instinct comes from talking to people, getting a feel for what you think yourself and what people not like you feel. For, at the end of the day, surely this is where insight comes from? After all, talking to people from different backgrounds is a function, in effect, carried out by market researchers, whether they design questions and analyse survey responses on a new product or conduct interviews about how an ad makes customers feel.

So, that is how I have ended up at this unhelpful, paradoxical conclusion: instinct and insight in the world of decision-making are – at the same time – inextricably connected and undoubtedly different. Put it another way, decision-making is not a black and white exercise, and that is why data and intuition fuse together into a grey area.

For more on how MRP (multilevel regression postratification) – a statistical technique – feeds into and improves data-driven insight, see this article on Bayesian models and better decisions, or go directly to data science firm focaldata.