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When to trust your gut (and when not to)

January 26, 2022 - 15 min read
 
 

paintern-thinking-trust-your-gut

With notes from an interview with Don Moore, Professor and Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication at Berkeley-Haas School of Business


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What does trusting your gut mean?

What a gut feeling feels like

The connection between brain and gut

The dangers of trusting your gut above all else

When to trust your gut

When not to trust your gut

How to improve your intuition

When was the last time you relied on your gut to make an important decision? Learning when to (and when not to) trust your gut can be a game-changer in professional and personal situations. 

Your gut is not always the greatest source of truth, however. To make the best decision, it’s important to recognize your gut responses and understand where they come from. So let’s take a closer look at trusting your gut, what gut instincts feel like, and when you need more evidence to support your decision.

What does trusting your gut mean?

These responses are built over time and informed by previous experiences. A traumatic breakup, for instance, could shape your intuitive response to protect you from getting hurt. You could get the gut feeling that each relationship after that difficult one is going to go sour, no matter how realistic it may be. 

This kind of projection could hold you back from all relationships, good or bad. So, it’s important to be able to recognize and assess our gut responses to make our most informed decisions.

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What a gut feeling feels like

Have you ever had the nagging feeling that something just isn’t right? Or have you gotten a sudden sense of clarity or calm after making a decision? Both are examples of gut instinct. You can experience both affirmative and negative responses as your body tries to tell you something.

Your gut feelings can manifest in many different ways, and each person is slightly different. Some common signs of a gut feeling are:

  • “Butterflies” or stomach nausea
  • Clammy or sweaty palms
  • Tension or muscle tightness
  • Tightness, a sinking feeling, or a sense of calm in your chest
  • A sudden sense of clarity
  • Vivid dreams
  • Increased heart rate

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The connection between brain and gut

The gut is an incredible organ and the only one to host its own nervous system independent of the brain – the enteric nervous system

This nervous system functions unconsciously, without input from the conscious mind. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the gut houses a network of 100 million neurons. These neurons allow a special communication system between the brain and the gut.

This communication system gives the gut a firm hand in regulating both physical and mental processes. So processes such as learning a new face, remembering that face, and establishing a mood or feeling in relation to it are all managed, in part, by the gut.

That’s not to say that the gut is a direct part of the decision-making process. It is more of an informant to help your brain garner additional information and make a sound decision.

How gut instincts are developed

There’s a misconception that gut feelings are based on emotion and that they cannot be trusted. And it’s understandable that people would come to that conclusion. Gut instincts seemingly come from nowhere and have little-to-no evidence to back them up. They come in a variety of forms that often leave people feeling unnerved or inexplicably calm. How are we to trust such volatile physical responses?

Well, they aren’t as whimsical as they may appear. Gut responses are in fact highly curated and developed from exposure to different stimuli and events. They’re the result of a complex filing system within your brain (with the help of your gut). A library of unconscious memories and snippets that you have no recollection of attaining.

Your brain then uses these memories of past experiences to predict what will happen next when a series of events or stimuli are repeated. You then feel the effects of your body’s interpretation of this predicted event, often triggering a fight or flight response. Do you take the risk or not?

The dangers of trusting your gut above all else

Don Moore, professor and Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication at Berkeley Haas, studies human confidence — specifically overconfidence.

He states that when we overestimate our ability or knowledge, we tend to take bad risks. This risky behavior can lead to poor choices. From investing in losing ventures and starting ill-fated companies, to digging our heels into alienating arguments, trusting your gut too much can have an adverse effect. 

Yet a startling majority of people tend to be overconfident in their own abilities. Their gut says so, and there’s little question of whether their gut is right or wrong.

Take for example, how many of us approach driving. In one study, 93% of US drivers claimed they were better than the median, when in fact, only 50% of the population can be above the median. If you think you’re better than the competition, when you’re not, you’re likely to enter contests that you lose. 

According to Moore, having a more accurate view of your abilities, based not only on intuition and feelings but also on evidence, is key to making good decisions.

How trusting your gut can support cognitive bias

Most of us believe we’re fair-minded decision-makers. It can be hard to admit the ways in which our judgments and behaviors might be biased. One of the most persistent forms of overconfidence in gut feelings is the excessive faith that I am right and my opinions are too. These overconfident thoughts are at the root of cognitive bias.

Becoming aware of this bias is the first step in maintaining healthy, reliable intuition.

Awareness helps us identify the root cause of the problem. It’s especially helpful if it pushes you to gather more information or think in new ways that broaden your perspective. Then you can actively consider other perspectives that challenge your current beliefs.

For example, we tend to favor people who are similar to us. So ‘having a good feeling’ about someone may not be as much about them as individuals as it is about their similarity to you. 

How to use evidence to challenge gut feelings

We don’t recommend relying on gut feelings when embarking on a big decision or life change, such as leaving your job or moving across the globe. Not without assessing their validity, anyway.

One way to ensure you can trust your gut feelings is to better balance them out with evidence. This evidence can help relieve biases to get a clearer picture of the direction you should go in. 

But challenging your gut involves asking some tough questions.

Say, for instance, you’re sure your new business will be a great success so you’re quitting your job immediately. Put your intuition to the test by considering why you might be wrong:

  • What contrary evidence is there?
  • What are the best arguments of your most passionate opponents or competitors? How likely is it that they’re correct?
  • What might lead your new business to fail in the market? Is there anything you can do now to reduce the risk of that failure?

Asking questions like these can protect you from making hasty decisions with hefty consequences by challenging your intuition with careful analysis.

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When to trust your gut

Trusting your gut can be useful when making some decisions, but it isn’t the best go-to for all situations. And determining which moments are good times to trust your gut isn’t a one-size-fits-all process.

It requires self-awareness. Understanding your responses and cognitive patterns will help you choose to go with your gut or not. 

To figure out whether trust your gut or not, ask yourself four primary questions:

  1. How much experience do I have in similar situations to this?
  2. How predictable is this environment?
  3. Does this situation need fast processing?
  4. Are my cognitive biases at play?

1. How much experience do I have in similar situations to this?

Since your gut instincts are learned and developed over time, some situations will be more familiar to some people than others. This familiarity adds to a situation’s predictability, which is a key component to intuitive responses.

A nurse with 20 years of experience, for example, will have better-developed gut responses at work than a nurse with just one year of experience. The first nurse has simply been exposed to more possible situations, so has a greater repertoire of potential outcomes to pull from. 

2. How predictable is this environment?

Predictability is informed by experience, but the experience can be pieced together from various times and places. Take dining at a restaurant for example. If it isn’t your first time dining at a restaurant, there are patterns you’ve come to anticipate. 

You can predict that when your server arrives at your table with a pen and pad in hand, they are looking to take your order. 

This is a predictable routine or pattern that you’ve become programmed to expect. It’s unlikely that you’ll choose this moment to explore the decor of the restaurant, for instance. It’s more likely that you will be prepared to respond with your order.

3. Does this situation need fast processing?

There are times when you don’t have time to deliberate whether you should trust your gut feeling or not. You just need to make a quick decision. 

These are often high-stress situations where you have to think on your feet. You may not make the absolute perfect decision here, but if you don’t have the time to analyze your options, your gut instinct is your best bet.

4. Are my cognitive biases at play?

This is a more difficult question to answer as it requires greater self-reflection. The more you do it, however, the faster you’ll be able to notice when you’re relying on biases to make a decision.

 friends-chatting-trust-your-gut

When not to trust your gut

As we mentioned, trusting your gut can lead to unconscious biases about people or situations.

This is particularly problematic when building relationships –– both professional and personal. The idea that people who are “similar to me” are better suited for a particular role or relationship often comes from relying too heavily on gut feelings. 

A hiring manager, for instance, may not realize that they have a preference or bias toward people like them. But if gone unnoticed, an organization or department can quickly lack diversity at all levels.

How to improve your intuition

Working to improve intuition is a long game. And as a society, we have a tendency to shy away from our instinctual responses in favor of logic and reason. But these gut instincts are incredibly valuable when used correctly. 

As we mentioned, gut intuition is a complex mechanism. It’s also flexible and if you work on it, according to neuroscientist Tara Swart, you can improve your intuition to be more accurate and reduce bias.

Here are two ways to get started:

Keep a journal

Journaling is a helpful way to keep track of your gut responses and their triggers. If you document them regularly, you’ll end up with a database of information about yourself and your decision-making process.

When keeping your intuition journal, be sure to note the situation, how you responded physically and mentally, and what your action was. Then ask yourself why you responded the way you did. Were you afraid? Had you made a similar decision a hundred times before? Were you leaning into cognitive biases?

Asking these questions will help you identify patterns and better understand your intuition.

Check-in with yourself regularly

Checking in doesn’t have to be a long process. Simply taking a moment to note how you are feeling provides you with a lot of information. Notice your breathing and your heart rate. Consider where you are holding tension and how you can relieve it. What is your inner voice telling you, and how is it serving you?

These simple check-ins can help you monitor your instincts more closely in the moment to make better decisions down the road.

The bottom line when trusting your gut

Gut feelings are absolutely necessary, valuable tools for the right situations. But it’s equally as essential to evaluate your gut instincts from time to time. Check the validity of your environment and where your instincts stem from. What patterns do you notice? Taking stock of your innate reactions can help you hone them and their accuracy over time. So you can be sure you’re trusting the right impulses.

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Published January 26, 2022

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