Here’s One Theory for What ‘Women’s Intuition’ Really Is

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It’s a happy little coincidence that the definition of “intuition” is somewhat intuitive — scientists have struggled to pinpoint a precise definition for the phenomenon, but everyone knows what it means to have a gut feeling, even without some standardization of the term.

Do some people know more than others, though? The concept of “women’s intuition” — that women are somehow inherently more in tune with their guts than men — is surprisingly pervasive, considering the fact that that research has failed to find any evidence for it. At most, there are theories. One of them, as Medical Daily has outlined, is that gender differences have emerged over the course of human evolution: Women, traditionally entrusted with child care, evolved to have stronger, more accurate instincts so as to better protect their offspring from any potential threats.

Maybe. Last night, at a talk titled “On Intuition,” sponsored by the Rubin Museum, psychologist David Ludden floated another theory: that “women’s intuition” is something we’ve created with our cultural ideas of who gets to feel, and how deeply. Speaking with comedian Ilana Glazer (of Broad City fame), Ludden, a professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, argued that old ideas about women as emotional and men as rational have created the expectation that men will learn to divorce their brains from their guts.

“It’s not the case that some people are intuitive and some people are analytical,” Ludden said. “We’re all intuitive — it’s the basic machinery that we’ve got.” The difference is in how much we listen to our intuition, something that’s shaped by social forces as we grow up: “Girls are told to trust their intuition,” he said, while boys are more frequently taught to tune it out.

It’s an argument that other psychologists have espoused as well. In fact, one 2001 study found that women scored better than men on empathy tests only when they were reminded of the stereotype that women are more empathetic. In a separate experiment, when authors skipped the reminder but paid participants of both genders based on their performance, “[it] wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances,” they wrote. “The results suggest that gender differences in empathic accuracy performance are the result of motivational differences and are not due to simple differences of ability between men and women.” In other words: Women’s intuition, more than a female-specific ability, is the choice to exercise something that every person possesses, but that some allow to lie dormant.