Hedge fund billionaire George Soros famously relied on instinct to manage his portfolio. He suffered from backaches, and said his pain let him know something wasn't right, often causing him to reconfigure investments, writes former trader John Coates in his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.
In a recent study, Coates, a former researcher for the University of Cambridge, along with colleagues in the U.K., sought to explore this connection between physical awareness and decision making. Their findings suggest that when people who work in high pressure situations are more in tune with their bodies, they make better decisions--adding fuel to the long-held belief that entrepreneurs who tend to take risky bets would do well to trust their guts.
A group of 18 male high frequency traders in an undisclosed hedge fund in London in 2012, along with a control group of 48 men, were asked to track their heart rate without touching their pulse or using equipment. Though they don't claim causal results from the tests, researchers found a positive correlation between heart rate accuracy--that is, those who were on point with the palpitations of their own hearts--and profitable trades. The findings also suggested that greater physical fitness--measured by body mass index and heart rate variability--could be related to traders' keener sense of their bodies.
It's important to remember that the study involved people who were practiced in making quick, high pressure decisions that are more like gambling than most daily interactions. Since the researchers found that traders had higher heartbeat accuracy than the control group, it's possible--whether consciously or not--high pressure situations provide more practice in tuning in to their bodies' signals.
Over time, experience making these kinds of decisions gets quicker, turning the process into what feels like intuition, says Christine Ma-Kellams, assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne in California. And people who are experienced at forming processes like high frequency trading that lead to intuition likely do this in other aspects of their life, even something as simple as reading physiological symptoms. Ma-Kellams says 'interoceptive' awareness--or knowledge of one's physiological signals--shouldn't necessarily be compared with intuition, which is based on an often unconscious assessment of past experiences.
"Experience leads to greater intuition over time," Ma-Kellams says. "If you're a trader, over time your knowledge becomes intuition, and it's possible people who have good processes for forming intuitive methods are better at things like guessing their heart rate."
When it comes to the more common behavior of interacting with other people, a systematic approach seems to be more successful, according to a July paper for the American Psychological Association she co-wrote. A careful assessment of signals and context, notes Ma-Kellams, leads to greater empathy and a better impression of others, compared to quick, categorical impressions.