So what exactly is that little feeling in your gut that tells you when it is or isn't appropriate to swear? Is it simply a byproduct of being socialized, or is it something on a more primitive level?
Psychologists have debated for decades about intuition -- described by one researcher, David Myers, as "an effortless, immediate, unreasoned sense of truth" [source: Psychology Today]. Intuition is also sometimes called a hunch, a gut-feeling, common sense and even a sixth sense. Intuition is widely accepted in popular culture, but whether or not it even exists is questioned by some scientists.
Still, the idea of human intuition persists. Chalk it up to the countless experiences the average human has had. Like knowing he was walking into a dangerous situation before danger showed itself. Or deeming a person he's just met trustworthy. Or knowing when a coworker would react badly to hearing him swear.
There has been increasing research into the subject since the work of Dr. Seymour Epstein, a psychologist in the 1970s who theorized that we operate through both rational and intuitive learning. Since then, cognitive psychology has taken up the gauntlet, delving deeply into the study of how we can make snap judgments based on minute information. What these researchers have uncovered is that it appears that the difference between intuition and rationality may be simply a difference in the way we learn. With rational thinking, a person has spent time studying and teaching his brain to understand the information he's presenting it (called cognitive learning). Under intuition, we learn without knowing we have learned. We gain information without studying, without undertaking the processes of learning. Yet we understand what we've learned just as much as we understand what we've studied.
This information can come from a variety of sources -- even from faces. Microexpressions are one example. These are tiny, unconscious facial expressions that aren't voluntarily controlled, but can be picked up by others -- also unconsciously. Through microexpressions, we can arrive at conclusions about another person with little or no effort on our part. In fact, microexpressions are so tiny and subtle that we may not even know why we trust a person or find him unsavory.
Living just by our intuition would be difficult, and even dangerous -- our intuition can be wrong. For example, if you approach a lion's cage at the zoo, you may make an intuitive judgment about the lion on the other side of the glass. Perhaps you noticed something about the lion's demeanor that puts you at ease. The intuition that he's a friendly lion, coupled with the urge to pet him because he's fluffy, may lead you to climb into the cage -- despite everything you've ever cognitively learned about the ferocity and danger of lions. As the lion devoured you, you would learn that your intuition led you astray.
The converse is also true, however. Living a life based only on rational, deliberate examination is no better than living by intuition alone. Locking eyes with a total stranger across a crowded room and feeling a jolt of emotion is highly irrational. You've never spoken to this person and know absolutely nothing about him beyond his superficial appearance. Depending only on your rational mind, you may allow the moment to pass and miss the opportunity to meet the person you could have spent the rest of your life with.
So when should you rely on your intuition? When it comes to approaching a lion's cage, swearing at work or encountering the love of your life, how do you know when intuition can serve you best? Only your intuition can tell you that.
For more information on swearing and intuition, read the next page.