Intuition versus Instinct

Intuition and instinct are two different things.

My Meriam-Webster Dictionary app defines instinct as : a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reasoning; behaviour that is meditated by actions below the conscious level.

If you analyze the language that we are using quite commonly to justify our actions, you will notice that some key words and concepts in this definition can be problematic; words such as ‘responding without reasoning’, ‘actions below the conscious level’ and ‘inheritable and unalterable tendency’ all imply that our actions are carried out without thought or reason.

Yet still, on a daily basis, when police officers specifically, are asked to justify and articulate their actions, actions usually involving the escalation of force, or perhaps when articulating why they are stopping a citizen on the street to question them on what they perceive as suspicious behaviour, actions that we are frequently and most often scrutinized for, our justifications and reasoning are not immediately available to us so we answer : “instinct.”  

A cop hunch is another popular one.

Instinct or a cop hunch should never be used to justify our reasoning for the escalation of force, because reasoning, according to the definition, is not present in either of these two concepts.

A flinch response to a punch or quickly removing your hand from a hot burner are both examples of instinctual behaviour. Your brain, operating at a subconscious level has ordered your body to respond in order to preserve itself from harm. 

But when a tactical team leader makes the decision that if he/she does not enter a suite immediately to end a volatile and dangerous unfolding situation, as opposed to remaining outside the stronghold and continuing negotiations, it is not instinct. This is not a cop hunch.  This decision is an incredibly complex cognitive process that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.

If a police officer is making a decision to escalate force that cannot be explained by logic and reasoning at the rational level of thinking, that is, decisions made in the frontal cortex of your brain, that’s where our highest level of thinking and problem solving is done, then I suggest that those actions are intuition, not instinct.

Intuition is defined by the same aforementioned source as: the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

In layman’s terms, the most accurate interpretation of what intuition means that I’ve heard was by a Psychologist named Seymour Epstein who was quoted as saying: “ Intuition is something that you have learned, without realizing you have learned it.” 

What this means is that we probably have valid reasons for the actions we take and the decisions we make, we just have to deeply consider why and discuss it with each other.

John Ratey is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard University and in his book : A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention and the Four Theaters of the Brain; he describes this incredibly complex cognitive process occurring in your brain at any given time, which I’ll try to summarize.

Neural networks begin forming before birth and are constantly being reinforced throughout your entire life. Your perceptions and experiences all have a significant impact. Each time you make a decision or take action based on your experiences you are subconsciously accessing a group of neurons that have formed together. Ratey estimates there are 100 million such groups in the brain all containing from 50-10,000 neurons.

All of these neural associations are the product of experiences, and are formed to enable us to function properly and most importantly, survive. All of these millions of neurons are firing full tilt in every cop’s brain during a stressful encounter where critical decisions need to be made. 

When you act in a certain way, there are numerous valid reasons at the subconscious level why you are acting in the way that you are and we need to do better at identifying them.

We need to debrief incidents properly and identify why our intuition told us that this action needed to be taken now. What have I learned here without realizing I have learned it? 

Please keep in mind, this goes deeper that the simple notion of articulable cause for detention. For example, if you are patrolling an area where high level of crimes has been reported, or if you see a person skulking around with no purpose at zero dark thirty and he is evading the police, your decision to want to talk to, identify and query him as to his activities is a decision that is made at a rational level.

Intuition goes deeper that that.

Is there a look in the person’s eyes that you have learned long ago, through many different experiences and that you can’t quite put your finger on, but tells you he is lying. Is he positioning his body in the same way as someone who took a swing at you you last year. Is his voice during negotiations the same tone and insincerity of a previous experiences of a suspect who was stalling for time, had no intention of complying and/or was formulating a plan of attack that caused you to feel if you do’t act now, the situation will worsen. Something in all those firing neurons has relayed to you this guy is using time to his own tactical advantage and counter measures need to be taken. 

I encourage all of you readers to recognize and appreciate this incredibly complex process going on in your brain at all times and do it justice by accessing the actual reason why you are doing what you are doing.

As an exercise, post incident, have a discussion with your teammates or your partner and list no less than 10 reasons why you felt your course of action was justified. What are the things that you have learned in the past that you didn’t realize you’ve learned, but those which are weighing heavily in your decision making.

These feeling are intuitive, not instinctual or a cop hunch. They are the truth. And they are valid and need to be expressed and developed.

They need to be discussed and brought into the conscious realm.