I arced into the long, blind turn (a turn where you can't see the exit from the entrance), my right knee hovering just above the pavement, when something made me slow down.

It wasn't a conscious thought. At that speed, at that lean angle, riding right on the edge of traction, I was too focused -- and having too much fun -- for a random premonition to creep in.

But still. I slowed down.

A couple seconds later I "realized" why. One car had crossed the center line and glanced off an oncoming car. Both had spun and were stopped sideways, still smoking, in the middle of the road. I was still going too fast to stop, but I had room -- and more importantly, the time afforded by having bled off speed -- to S-turn between them. Fortunately, both drivers were okay. 

As we waited for the police to arrive I thought about why I had slowed down. An angel didn't appear. Obi-Wan Kenobi didn't whisper in my ear. Why did I slow down? I decided to go back and look at the road.

There was an unusual sheen caused by some kind of fluid. Faint skid marks had left an unusual pattern. Some gravel appeared to have been scattered by hand rather than littered along the edge of the road.

I hadn't "noticed" any of those things.

But clearly I had.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman said at a speech at the World Business Forum, "Intuition is defined as knowing without knowing how (my italics) you know. That's the wrong definition."

Kahneman said this is a better definition: "Intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do." 

Subtle difference -- but important. The first presupposes that you know the answer. You know; you just don't know how you know. The second allows room for doubt: You think you know... but you don't know why.

Which means you know you could be wrong.

Here's an example Kahneman uses: Julie, a college senior, was able to read fluently at a young age. When asked to guess her college GPA, most people predict a 3.7. 

According to Kahneman, "It's a terrible answer. It's an intuition, and it's absolutely wrong. Actually, the age that people read is very little information about what student they will be 20 years later."

The problem with that kind of intuition, of course, is that no matter how confident you might feel, it's really just a guess. There is no data to support it. 

Which means, as intuitions go, it should not be trusted.

When to Trust Your Intuition

Kahneman says three factors indicate whether you should have confidence in an intuition or instinct:

1. A regular, predictable environment. If something happens on a frequent basis, the outcomes are more likely to be predictable. Kahneman uses chess as an example:  "Intuitions of master chess players when they look at the board are often accurate," he says. Or people in close relationships: "Everybody who's been married could guess their wife's or their husband's mood by one word on the telephone."

Or even medical professionals: Researchers determined there is a strong correlation between a doctor's "gut feelings" about ICU patients at the beginning of their stay, when medical data was sparse, and the eventual course and outcome of treatment. 

Why is regularity so important?

2. Practice. Accurate intuition isn't something you have; it's something you get from lots and lots of practice. 

That was the case for me. I'd ridden thousands of blind turns. I'd spent years riding a motorcycle near the edge of control. I had lots of practice. And I had one more thing going for me.

3. Immediate feedback. Without feedback, you don't kow whether you were right or wrong... which means you can't develop genuine confidence in your instincts.

That's the difference Kahneman points out between how and why

People who say, "I don't know how I knew it -- I just did," were just lucky. They can't go back and trace the signals they unconsciously noticed. They can't reflect later on experiences that led to a solid gut feel. They just guessed.

People who say, "At the time, I didn't think about why I made that decision... but looking back, here are the reasons why," weren't lucky. They knew -- in just didn't, in the moment, know why.

Of course that doesn't mean your intuitions will always be right. Intuition is never a substitute for data, logic, reasoning, and experience.

But if you need to make a quick decision, and your instinct is to go a certain way, take a moment and think about the situation itself:

  • Does it happen regularly?
  • Have you had lots of practice?
  • Did you get immediate feedback that let you know whether you got it right or wrong?

If the answers are yes, you may have developed what Kahneman calls expert intuition.

"But unless those three conditions are satisfied," he says, "the mere fact that you have an idea and nothing else comes to mind and you feel a great deal of confidence -- absolutely does not guarantee accuracy."

Which means you're not really going with your gut, or what psychologists like to call your "second brain."

You're just guessing.