Is it rational to trust your gut feelings? Does it matter if you face a decision that is personal versus a decision you have at work?
Does the amount and reliability of information prompt you to make a decision solely on logic and rationality, or does gut feeling still play a part? Are gut feelings defined as an emotion or something else? These are questions that have prompted a great deal of research and discussion for hundreds of years.
A Definition of Gut Feelings
Gut feelings can be defined asan instinct or intuition; an immediate or basic feeling or reaction without a logical rationale, an instinctive feeling, as opposed to an opinion based on facts. If you have a gut feeling about something, you are sure even though you cannot give reasons. Gut feelings are also known as intuition.
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired. Different writers give the word “intuition” a great variety of different meanings, ranging from direct access to unconscious knowledge, unconscious cognition, inner sensing, inner insight to unconscious pattern-recognition and the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. Some philosophers contend that the word “intuition” is often misunderstood or misused to mean instinct, truth, belief, and meaning, whereas others contend that faculties such as instinct, belief and intuition are factually related.The word intuitioncomes from the Latin verb intueritranslated as “consider” or from the late middle English word intuit, “to contemplate”.
Both Eastern and Western philosophers have studied the concept in great detail. In the East intuition is mostly intertwined with religion and spirituality, and various meanings exist from different religious texts. In the West, intuition does not appear as a separate field of study, and early mention and definition can be traced back to Plato. In his book Republic he tries to define intuition as a fundamental capacity of human reason to comprehend the true nature of reality.
In his book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes refers to an intuition as a pre-existing knowledge gained through rational reasoning or discovering truth through contemplation. This definition is commonly referred to as rational intuition. Later philosophers, such as Hume, have more ambiguous interpretations of intuition.
Immanuel Kant found intuition is thought of as basic sensory information provided by the cognitive faculty of sensibility (equivalent to what might loosely be called perception). Kant held that our mind casts all of our external intuitions in the form of space, and all of our internal intuitions (memory, thought) in the form of time.
According to Sigmund Freud, knowledge could only be attained through the intellectual manipulation of carefully made observations and rejected any other means of acquiring knowledge such as intuition, and his findings could have been an analytic turn of his mind towards the subject. In Carl Jung‘s theory of the ego, described intuition is an “irrational function”, opposed most directly by sensation, and opposed less strongly by the “rational functions” of thinking and feeling. Jung defined intuition as “perception via the unconscious”: using sense-perception only as a starting point, to bring forth ideas, images, possibilities, ways out of a blocked situation, by a process that is mostly unconscious.
Instinct is often misinterpreted as intuition and its reliability considered to be dependent on past knowledge and occurrences in a specific area. For example, someone who has had more experiences with children will tend to have a better instinct about what they should do in certain situations with them. This is not to say that one with a great amount of experience is always going to have an accurate intuition.
Intuitive abilities were quantitatively tested at Yale University in the 1970s. While studying nonverbal communication, researchers noted that some subjects were able to read nonverbal facial cues before reinforcement occurred. In employing a similar design, they noted that highly intuitive subjects made decisions quickly but could not identify their rationale. Their level of accuracy, however, did not differ from that of non intuitive subjects.
Intuition, as a gut feeling based on experience, has been found to be useful for business leaders for making judgment about people, culture and strategy. Law enforcement officers often claim to observe suspects and immediately “know” that they possess a weapon or illicit narcotic substances, which could also be action of instincts. Often unable to articulate why they reacted or what prompted them at the time of the event, they sometimes retrospectively can plot their actions based upon what had been clear and present danger signals. Such examples liken intuition to “gut feelings” and when viable illustrate preconscious activity.
The Brain-Gut Connection
A research paper, published in Physiology and led by Florida State University, claims that gut-to-brain signals are a “powerful influence on emotions, mood and decisions” and are often a response to worrisome or threatening stumuli and events.
According to Florida State neuroscientist Dr Linda Rinaman, the gut and brain are constantly communicating via the vagus nerve – a sprawling two-way network that’s 100 times larger than the surface of the skin and sends more signals to the brain than any other organ system in the body. The nerve carries top-down messages from the brain to the body as well as bottom-up messages commonly described as “gut feelings” and it is these that prompt us to evaluate a situation or avoid it altogether.
Together with James Maniscalco, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Rinaman suggests that these signals from our gastrointestinal tract can work as a red flag that actually stops us making bad or dangerous decisions. “The neuroscience of gut feelings has come a long way in my lifetime and we are learning more valuable lessons every day,” Rinaman said.“Vagal feedback signals are very protective and encourage caution.”
Similarly, the data also revealed that our diet can have a major impact on the quality of the gut’s signals and this can sometimes lead to altered mood or behaviour.
For example, Rinaman claims that a high-fat diet can lead to inflammatory response in the GI tract, which changes signals from the vagus nerve and can in turn lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. “Evidence shows that modifying the diet, perhaps by consuming probiotics, can impact your mood and behavioural state,” Rinaman explained.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California tells us that it is important to pay attention to “somatic markers.” Originating in the insula (the island in the brain responsible for social emotions like pride or guilt) and the amygdala (which cues our response to threats), they send messages that something just feels right—or it doesn’t. The more you pay attention to the outcome of trusting your intuition in combination with facts, the better your future decision-making can become.
Damasio tested this theory in an experiment called the Iowa Gambling Task, in which subjects could choose between decks of cards to win money. Among the choices: two “good” decks that turned up consistent profits and two others with riskier cards. Though it took about 50 cards to make a decision to switch decks and 80 cards to explain why, the subjects’ skin was also being monitored for response to stress. The physical reaction showed that after drawing just 10 risky cards, the body was already displaying signs of anxiety, which meant that their feelings were firing signals faster than rational thought.
Scientific evidence shows a strong connection between chronic diseases and inflammation. Inflammation is most commonly rooted in the gut, where around 70 percentof our immune system resides. Our food choices result in oxidative stress, setting the stage for inflammatory ailments such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, obesity and more. The health of your gut directly impacts the health of your brain. The gut communicates with our immune system and also communicates with the brain using, among other things, neurotransmitters. One function of neurotransmitters is that they that they send key messages to the brain, resulting in various effects on the body. Serotonin and dopamine are some well-known neurotransmitters that are typically associated with a good mood. In fact, while many believe that serotonin is primarily produced in the brain, it’s been found that up to 90 percent of serotonin is actually created in the gut.
Dr. Helen Messer, the Chief Medical Officer at Viome, which analyzes the gut microbiome, says “the bacteria in the gut make or consume the majority of neurotransmitters in our bodies.” Essentially, if your gut is producing an adequate amount of mood-improving chemicals like serotonin, then it will send signals to the brain that will result in various benefits such as better sleep and satiety. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but that’s the general rundown. So how do you influence your gut to help it produce the good neurotransmitters and other compounds that make the mind feel better? A lot of it has to do with eating the right diet that your gut needs.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have proposed an evolutionary framework to understand why microbes living in the gut affect the brain and behaviour, published in Nature Reviews Microbiology. Katerina Johnson (Department of Experimental Psychology) and Kevin Foster (Department of Zoology) assessed data from studies on the gut-brain axis to suggest how that gut feeling evolved.
Research has shown that gut bacteria (especially species belonging to Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) can influence social behavior, anxiety, stress and depressive-like behaviour. Katerina explained: “We know there are numerous possible mechanisms, including communication via the vagus nerve (major nerve linking the gut and brain), the immune system and hormonal changes, as well as the production of neuroactive chemicals by gut microbes. But why should we expect gut bacteria to affect behavior at all?” In their paper, Johnson and Foster consider the evolutionary pressures that may have led to that gut feeling.
One theory gaining momentum is that members of the gut microbiome actively manipulate our behavior for their own benefit. For instance, gut bacteria might change our behavior in ways that make us more sociable to increase their likelihood of transmission to new hosts. Indeed, it is intriguing that numerous species of gut bacteria can produce chemicals of identical structure to our brain’s own neurotransmitters (or their precursors). However, in light of evolutionary theory, the authors suggest this scenario, that our brains are manipulated by our microbes, is very unlikely given the immense diversity of microbial species and strains inhabiting the gut. Professor Foster explained: “Any extra energetic cost invested by bacteria producing a neuroactive chemical to manipulate host behavior would make it very vulnerable to being outcompeted by other microbes not making this additional investment. The conditions favoring manipulation appear rarely satisfied by the genetically diverse ecosystem of the mammalian microbiome.”
In addition, our physiology may have adapted to make use of our associated microbes. Similar to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that an absence of microbes impairs immune system development, we propose that we may have evolved to depend on our microbes for normal brain function, such that a change in our gut microbiome could have effects on behavior.” Johnson and Foster suggest that an understanding of the evolution of gut-brain communication may help us to effectively engineer this microbial ecosystem with potential benefits for mental health and well-being.
Gastrointestinal conditions are incredibly common. About 20% of adults and adolescents suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder where abdominal discomfort or pain go hand-in-hand with changes in bowel habits. These could involve chronic diarrhea and constipation, or a mixture of the two. IBS is a so-called functional disorder, because while its symptoms are debilitating, there are no visible pathological changes in the bowel. So it is diagnosed based on symptoms rather than specific diagnostic tests or procedures. This is contrary to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition where the immune system reacts in an exaggerated manner to normal gut bacteria. Inflammatory bowel disease is associated with bleeding, diarrhea, weight loss and anemia (iron deficiency) and can be a cause of death. It’s called an organic bowel disease because we can see clear pathological changes caused by inflammation to the bowel lining.
Many experience anxiety and depression in response to the way the illness changes their life. But studies also suggest those with anxiety and depression are more likely to develop bowel disorders. This is important evidence of brain-gut interactions.
The brain and gut speak to each other constantly through a network of neural, hormonal and immunological messages. But this healthy communication can be disturbed when we stress or develop chronic inflammation in our guts. Stress can influence the type of bacteria inhabiting the gut, making our bowel flora less diverse and possibly more attractive to harmful bacteria. It can also increase inflammation in the bowel, and vulnerability to infection.
Chronic intestinal inflammation may lower our sensitivity to positive emotions. When we become sick with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, our brains become rewiredthrough a process called neuroplasticity, which changes the connections between the nerve signals. Anxiety and depression are common in people suffering chronic bowel problems. Approximately 20% of those living with inflammatory bowel disease report feeling anxious or blue for extended periods of time. When their disease flares, this rate may exceed 60%.
Interestingly, in a recent large study 2,007 people living with inflammatory bowel disease were observed over nine years. The study found a strong association between symptoms of depression or anxiety and disease activity over time. So, anxiety and depression are likely to make the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease worse long-term.
We all feel things in our gut – intuitions that give us subtle physiological alerts, stress and anxiety that unsettle us, bad reactions to food, and conversely feelings of contentment from the right food, or flutters from an exciting experience. But according to Dr. Emeran Mayer, what we feel is just a small fraction of what’s going on in a region of our body that is still quite mysterious – even to the experts.
In his book, The Mind-Gut Connection,, Dr Mayer writes: “Your gut has capabilities that surpass all our other organs and even rival your brain. It has its own nervous system, known in scientific literature as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and [is] often referred to in the media as the “second brain.””
As Mayer describes, this second brain consists of about 100 million nerve cells sandwiched between layers of the gut running all the way from the esophagus to the end of the large intestine. This ‘second brain’ and our regular brain use the same neurotransmitters and are connected through neural, endocrine, and immune pathways, so it truly is an integrated intelligent system with information flowing in both directions.
What makes the second brain unique from other organs is that – in animals at least – when it’s separated from the main brain it continues to pilot its complex activities on its own.
The system is extremely interesting to researchers because of this independent streak, and the effect that it may have on our mental health. After his many years of research, Mayer humbly says it’s “highly plausible” that there is a connection between the gut and mental health conditions such as depression. Scientists from the University of North Carolina have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which have associations with our mood. Often the medications people with depression take are designed to adjust the uptake of these neurotransmitters, a treatment scientists at the time designed thinking only of the brain, but it may now also have implications in the microbiome.
What makes it even more intriguing is that more than 95% of our body’s serotonin is produced and stored in the gut in specialized enterochromaffin cells, says Dr Mayer, adding: “By far the largest store of the molecule that plays such a big role in modulating our mood and our wellbeing – also appetite, pain sensitivity – is stored in the gut.”
Other Research on Gut Feelings in Decision-Making
More recent research on the complexity of making decisions based on gut feelings is being done by Shabnam Mousavi, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. She is the lead author of “Risk, Uncertainty, And Heuristics,” a paper that explores the idea that intuition can be a more useful tool than deliberate calculation in certain situations. Their research digs deeper into Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman’s work, which showed how often humans elect to make a snap judgment based on intuition, rather than deliberating with available information.
Mousavi proposes that too much information can be just as misleading as a hunch in some cases. One example came from quizzing both German and U.S. students to see if they could guess which city was larger: Detroit or Milwaukee. Score: Germans 90% correct vs. Americans 60% correct. Why? Because the Germans simply picked the one they’d heard more about and guessed it was the larger of the two. Americans, armed with “knowledge” of these cities didn’t reach for the obvious—and failed.
Though this seems like a simplistic example, the researchers note that given two cities that students had never heard of would have changed the results dramatically. Likewise, some financial newbies have no trouble picking better stocks than a seasoned expert, but give them a portfolio of unrecognizable brands and watch the game change. Which validates Damasio’s theory that the experience of trusting the gut and getting something right or wrong is key in making good decisions.
Mousavi posits that it’s important to take intuitive decision-making one step further by recognizing why people have developed such instincts and the best place to use them.While business favors doing a cost/benefit analysis and a rational approach before deciding which way to go, in an article for Johns Hopkins’ The Hub, Mousavi recommends an alternative:
Create a decision tree that starts with the fundamental question: “If the worst-case scenario of a proposal were to occur, could you survive?” If no, don’t pursue it. If yes, the next question might be whether the company was well-positioned as a first mover in an area. By making each decision sequentially, the company can more effectively limit its information to relevant factors—avoiding information overload and not attempting to quantify the unquantifiable.
When you think about how much data is flying at us at any given minute: over 100 billion emails are sent and received every day this year alone, there may be something to be said for stanching the fire hose of information that threatens to clog up our brain with useless facts.
Associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Joel Pearson, conducted a study on intuition–and for the first time, his research team found evidence that people can use their intuition to make better, faster, more accurate and more confident decisions. The report was subsequently published in the journal, Psychological Science.
The research team defined intuition as the “brain process that gives people the ability to make decisions without the use of analytical reasoning,” which in the business world seems like a bad idea, particularly given our increasing reliance on data. Even so, we can probably all agree that intuition must play some role in our decision-making, particularly when it comes to soft skills like human resources, networking and pitching business.
Up until this study, the problem in assessing intuition has been the lack of a reliable test to gather objective data on intuition and even prove that it exists. However, Pearson and his team finally developed a series of experiments that could better judge whether a person was using intuition or not, and the extent to which instincts came into play in any given decision.
Pearson’s experiment asks students to judge a moving swath of dots while simultaneously pinging their subconscious minds with flashing photos of “positive” or “negative” images. Positive images like puppies and babies served to produce a positive emotional response, while negative images like guns and snakes served to produce a negative response. The images were meant to mimic the type of subliminal information involved in intuition in the first place; namely, they were “brief, emotionally charged and subconsciously perceived,” making them perfect proxies to the real-world inputs that bombard our subconscious minds every day.
Over the course of the study, those subliminal images proved that more positive inputs produced better results on the track-the-dots task, while more negative inputs produced worse results on the task. Furthermore, respondents who received those positive inputs over time were able to make correct calls more quickly, and reported feeling more confident about their ability to recognize the trends of the dots.
In summary, the study concluded that the type and frequency of subliminal messages directly correlated with both one’s instinctual ability to make accurate decisions, and one’s ability to trust the instincts in the first place. In business and in life, this study teaches us that surrounding ourselves with more positive, subliminal inputs not only helps us make better decisions, but also helps us to trust those decisions over time.
For business owners, that might mean spending more social time with employees to pick up on subtle cues about workplace happiness. For sales folks, that might mean being more observant in pitch meetings. For some employees, embracing positive, subliminal messages might simply mean asking to sit in on client calls to pick up on subtle references that may help future work be more aligned with the clients’ wishes.
The ability to nurture a sense of intuition might help explain why some folks get “luckier” than others, have the uncanny ability to spot exceptional business ideas, or always seem to find the best people to work with. It seems as if their awareness of positive, subconscious inputs is much higher than others, which over time allows them to make better, more confident decisions.
Artificial intelligence and robotics may outperform doctors in some areas, but a new study highlights the important role human intuition plays in medical decisions. Computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) analyzed 10 years of data on patients in intensive care and found that doctors’ gut feelings about how their patients were doing influenced how many tests they ordered. The researchers collected information on all factors a doctor might consider in deciding to order tests, including a patient’s age, gender, disease type and severity. They also measured how doctors felt about their patients by analyzing care notes using an algorithm that scores text for positive and negative sentiment.
According to study lead Mohammad Ghassemi, “there’s something about a doctor’s experience, and their years of training and practice, that allows them to know in a more comprehensive sense, beyond just the list of symptoms, whether you’re doing well or not.”
The study helps to explain why there can be so much variation in the use of medical resources, even in similar cases. Whether the doctors’ hunches about their patients were correct is another matter. Modern medicine has tended to value more conscious, deliberate analysis over intuitive reasoning. Some doctors argue this has resulted in overly simplistic “tick box” care. Clinical guidelines may define the most likely presentation, treatment and outcome of a disease but may not apply in unique cases.
Research shows that the earliest impressions a person forms when confronted with a problem can often be more accurate than later analysis. Studies of physicians demonstrate that the best predictor of diagnostic accuracy is having a hunch about a patient’s condition in the first minutes of an encounter. One study published in BMJ found that a doctor’s gut feeling that something was wrong when treating a child in primary care can have greater diagnostic value than most signs and symptoms.
Although it’s often assumed these hunches draw from clinical experience, it’s not clear how much experience matters. In the BMJ study, a doctor’s intuition about a child’s condition was strongly influenced by how much the parents were concerned, but the clinician’s level of experience made no difference to the diagnostic value of the hunch.
Other studies have shown that instructing medical trainees to use intuition can lead to equal or greater accuracy in diagnosis. This may be because clinical intuition has more to do with empathy than expertise. One recent study found that general practitioners who scored highest on empathy were four times as likely to report using gut feelings in practice compared to those who scored lowest on empathy. It remains to be seen whether this intuition is a uniquely human dimension of care. According to MIT study coauthor Tuka Alhanai, “The question is, can you get the machine to do something like that?”
Not all research studies point to the benefits of intuition.
A new study says you should think long and hard and fight against your intuition.
Harvard Kennedy School professor Jennifer Lerner teamed up with Christine MaKellams of the University of La Verne to show that — contrary to popular belief — systematic thinkers are better at reading people than their intuitive counterparts, especially in unfamiliar situations. Their research paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others — that is, to be empathically accurate,” the paper’s abstract read. “Some are better at this than others, a difference which may be explained in part by mode of thought.”
To determine which mode was the winner, Lerner and MaKellams ran four studies. The first was an online survey that asked participants to predict whether systematic or intuitive thinking would help them interpret emotions more accurately. Unsurprisingly, most people thought intuition would win. The two researchers then worked with executive-level professionals in studies two to four, randomly assigning each participant to either interview or be interviewed by another participant. At the end of the mock interview, both individuals were asked to assess their own emotions during the session and what they perceived their partner’s emotions to be. Lerner and MaKellams found, by comparing the assessments, that systematic thinkers were the ultimate context of real-life interviews, this means that your first impression is not always a good predictor of the kind of person you are facing, no matter if you are the interviewer or the interviewee. The age-old proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover” indeed holds true. But here’s the challenge: We are wired to make quick judgments based on our assumptions, something MaKellams described as an automatic reflex. On the other hand, she said, systematic thinking is effortful, takes more time and requires individuals to go through every aspect of a situation before making a decision.
“The most surprising thing [about the research] is that our assumptions about what makes us better people readers are not aligned with reality,” she told Forbes. “People think we should be intuitive. But in novel situations, when you’re with people you may not know well, intuition doesn’t help you all that much. Thinking slowly and deliberately works better.”
Critiques of intuition are complicated by the fact that intuition is such a slippery word. Its definition can be stretched to mean almost anything, from innate instinct to professional judgment to plain-old common sense. But people generally agree that intuition refers to the brain’s process of interpreting and reaching conclusions without resorting to conscious thught. Critics of the reliance on intuition or gut feelings point out that we have a deep-seated need to see patterns. The mind’s well-documented facility for pattern recognition seems to lie at the very core of intuition—it’s how the brain synthesizes information from the past and uses it to understand the present and anticipate the future. But it can get us into trouble because of our unconscious desire to identify patterns. When confronted with a new phenomenon, our brains try to categorize it based on previous experiences to fit a pattern stored in our memories. The problem is that in maketing that fit, we inevitably filter out the very things that make a new phenomenon new.
New artificial intelligent decision-support tools such as Agent-Based Modeling, Interactive Evolution and Open-Ended Search can provide decision-makers with valuable processes and tools to aid in the decision-making processes that can be used in combination with intuition and gut feelings.
Intuition and Gut Feelings in Business
In business many famous CEOs have discounted research and data and made some very tough calls based largely (if not solely) on their gut instinct – sometimes leading to riches and other times to catastrophic losses.
Take Steve Jobs, for example. He was famous for making critical decisions at Apple without first consulting fact-based business data. In 2010, Jobs accurately predicted that the tablet could actually overtake the PC one day, despite many data reports to the contrary. Following his intuition, in April of that same year, he launched the iPad, disregarding the many doubters who doomed it to fail.
On the flip side, there’s the example of Motorola and its CEO Gregory Brown. In 1998, Brown ignored all indications that the mobile phone was taking off and instead invested heavily in Iridium satellite phone technology, despite it already being obsolete. This failed venture cost the company $8 billion.
Richard Branson, famed founder of Virgin once said, “I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.” Similarly, a Fortune Knowledge Group study reports that 62 percent of executives feel it is often necessary to rely on gut feelings and soft factors when making big decisions on partnerships and proposals.
Many leaders think the best way to make a decision is to focus on the logical, reasoning part of their minds. Actually, what neuroscience tells us is that there’s more to our brain than the gray matter that rests between our ears. Other parts of our body do essential work processing information. And, the best leaders know how to analyze and use that information.
Brain scientist Daniel Siegal explained the science behind gut feelings for Daniel Goleman’s Leadership: A Master Class series. Here’s an excerpt from his presentation:
“We now know that the intestines, our gut, has a set of neural net processors that function like sophisticated computers. The computers we have at home are linear processors, and they can do all sorts of fancy things quickly, but the really sophisticated computers are those that are in a spider-web-like network called parallel distributed processing. We have these parallel processors called PDP models that are in our intestines and also around our heart. So the heartfelt feelings that we have are not just poetic metaphors of the ‘gut instinct’ and ‘heartfelt feelings’ but instead are really sophisticated processors. Now, it’s not rational—meaning it’s not a logical thing where you could say, ‘A went to B went to C.’ But it is a very important way in which our whole being is processing information, and often this source of bodily wisdom is very useful when contemplating an organization’s direction.
Given that the body plays an important role in decision-making, how does this relate to self-awareness? Although there is disagreement among neuroscientists about whether there is a significant difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the signals from our gut have their primary input to the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is also a primary site for making maps of an autobiographical self.
Body awareness and awareness of raw, spontaneous non-rational input mostly involves the right hemisphere. The left, in contrast, is more distant from the body and analyzes data it perceives. It cuts it into pieces, creates categories, does “digital analysis,” looking for binary distinctions, such as up and down, yes and no.
Realizing the left is digital and the right is analog, leaders need to understand both are important. The left sees the details; the right sees the big picture. Both are really significant, so self-aware leaders know the difference in these two ways of processing, honor the importance of both, and integrate them together.
When I say it is important to listen to your gut, I don’t necessarily mean you should respond to it directly. Gut feelings or a heartfelt sense provide crucial wisdom. Other times, our gut feelings can lead us astray. As with any data source, it’s important to analyze bodily input, not just to respond to it blindly. Just because you were once bitten by a dog doesn’t mean every time you see a dog and your gut says “alert, alert, alert” you should expect to be bitten.
A great research study would be to look at leaders who said “I followed my gut” when creating companies that failed or succeeded. What determines a gut feeling that makes an incredibly successful company versus a gut feeling that doesn’t? My sense is that a key difference would be how the leaders analyzed and used their gut sense. Working with a coach is an effective way to learn how to listen to and analyze your gut feelings. Here’s an article that suggests an exercise for developing your skill at making sense of the messages your body gives you.”
And The Bottom Line Is?
Relying on your intuition generally has a bad reputation, especially in the Western part of the world where analytic thinking has been steadily promoted over the past decades. Gradually, many have come to think that humans have progressed from relying on primitive, magical and religious thinking to analytic and scientific thinking. As a result, they view emotions and intuition as fallible, even whimsical, tools.
However, this attitude is based on a myth of cognitive progress, some scientists would argue. Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties. They are appraisals of what you have just experienced or thought of – in this sense, they are also a form of information processing.
Intuition or gut feelings are also the result of a lot of processing that happens in the brain. Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next. This is described in what scientists call the “predictive processing framework”. This ensures that the brain is always as prepared to deal with the current situation as optimally as possible. When a mismatch occurs (something that wasn’t predicted), your brain updates its cognitive models. This matching between prior models (based on past experience) and current experience happens automatically and subconsciously. Intuitions occur when your brain has made a significant match or mismatch (between the cognitive model and current experience), but this has not yet reached your conscious awareness.
For example, you may be driving on a country road in the dark listening to some music, when suddenly you have an intuition to drive more to one side of the lane. As you continue driving, you notice that you have only just missed a massive pothole that could have significantly damaged your car. You are glad you relied on your gut feeling even if you don’t know where it came from. In reality, the car in the far distance in front of you made a similar small swerve (since they are locals and know the road), and you picked up on this without consciously registering it. When you have a lot of experience in a certain area, the brain has more information to match the current experience against. This makes your intuitions more reliable. This means that, as with creativity, your intuition can actually improve with experience.
In the psychological literature, intuition is often explained as one of two general modes of thinking, along with analytic reasoning. Intuitive thinking is described as automatic, fast, and subconscious. Analytic thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, conscious and deliberate.
Many take the division between analytic and intuitive thinking to mean that the two types of processing (or “thinking styles”) are opposites, working in a see-saw manner. However, a recent meta-analysis – an investigation where the impact of a group of studies is measured – has shown that analytic and intuitive thinking are typically not correlated and could happen at the same time.
So while it is true that one style of thinking likely feels dominant over the other in any situation – in particular analytic thinking – the subconscious nature of intuitive thinking makes it hard to determine exactly when it occurs, since so much happens under the bonnet of our awareness.
Indeed, the two thinking styles are in fact complementary and can work in concert – we regularly employ them together. Even groundbreaking scientific research may start with intuitive knowledge that enables scientists to formulate innovative ideas and hypotheses, which later can be validated through rigorous testing and analysis. What’s more, while intuition is seen as sloppy and inaccurate, analytic thinking can be detrimental as well. Studies have shown that overthinking can seriously hinder our decision-making process.
In other cases, analytic thinking may simply consist of post-hoc justifications or rationalisations of decisions based on intuitive thinking. This occurs for example when we have to explain our decisions in moral dilemmas. This effect has let some people refer to analytic thinking as the “press secretary” or “inner lawyer” of intuition. Oftentimes we don’t know why we make decisions, but we still want to have reasons for our decisions.
So should we just rely on our intuition, given that it aids our decision-making? It’s complicated. Because intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic and fast processing, it also falls prey to misguidances, such as cognitive biases. These are systematic errors in thinking, that can automatically occur. Despitthis, familiarizing yourself with common cognitive biases can help you spot them in future occasions: there are good tips about how to do that here and here.
Similarly, since fast processing is ancient, it can sometimes be a little out of date. Consider for example a plate of donuts. While you may be attracted to eat them all, it is unlikely that you need this large an amount of sugars and fats. However, in the hunter-gatherers’ time, stocking up on energy would have been a wise instinct.
Thus, for every situation that involves a decision based on your assessment, consider whether your intuition has correctly assessed the situation. Is it an evolutionary old or new situation? Does it involve cognitive biases? Do you have experience or expertise in this type of situation? If it is evolutionary old, involves a cognitive bias, and you don’t have expertise in it, then rely on analytic thinking. If not, feel free to trust your intuitive thinking.
It is time to stop the witch hunt on intuition, and see it for what it is: a fast, automatic, subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analyzing can’t. We need to accept that intuitive and analytic thinking should occur together, and be weighed up against each other in difficult decision-making situations.
Gary Klein, in his book, Intuition at Work, expresses the common wisdom when he says that intuition is “at the center of the decision-making process,” and that analysis is, at best, “a supporting tool for making intuitive decisions.”
Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.
Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.