Neither instinct nor intuition involve thought. Both involve responding directly to a situation. So what is the difference?
Instinct is an innate faculty we share with other living beings. We respond automatically to situations, eg catch a ball that is about to hit us, avoid contact with an unfriendly being. It typically involves a fixed pattern of behaviour, “reacting”. Instinct came along first and maybe represents the sum of experience of earlier generations, plus learned responses.
Intuition is direct knowledge of a situation. We just know what is right, what is true, what is about to happen, etc. Something is “seen” or “understood” beyond what is presented. Spiritual writings suggest that this involves a link to our ‘higher self’. Others suggest it’s something to do with pattern recognition. Intuition develops over the individual’s experience during a lifetime.
A quick web search showed me a huge variety of definitions of instinct and intuition. The most inspirational I found was that by Christen Rodgers:
True intuition arises from within the depths of your soul. It speaks in the language of the spirit – the language of love, flow, hope, and forward movement. Instinct, on the other hand, isn’t a spiritual sense but a physiological one. It comes from and serves the flesh and speaks the language of survival – fight or flight, judgement, avoidance, aggression, and fear.
This key difference is how you can tell them apart. Whereas instinct speaks in terms of resistance, intuition speaks in terms of flow. Intuition will urge you to go this way, do this thing, or approach that person. If something isn’t right for you, intuition won’t push against it. Instead, it will simply redirect you towards something else. Instinct, on the other hand, pushes back. It resists, fears, or judges what you perceive as wrong rather than beckoning you towards what’s right.
For Christen, the difference is between a response coming from a place of love, and one coming from a place of fear. I think this is going too far – animals clearly have both fearing and loving instincts. So maybe she’s right in terms of how we should assess our automatic responses, but not in strict definitional terms.
Other insights will be welcome as comments. (‘Insight’ – there’s another similar word that some writers take as a step beyond intuition.)