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When Should We Trust Our Gut?

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“I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” explained President Trump in stating why he believed Federal Reserve interest rate hikes were a mistake. “My gut has always been right,” he declared again in saying why he needn’t prepare for the recent trade negotiation with China’s president.

 

In trusting his gut intuition, Trump has much company. “Buried deep within each and every one of us, there is an instinctive, heart-felt awareness that provides—if we allow it to—the most reliable guide,” offered Prince Charles. “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts,” said President George W. Bush, explaining his decision to launch the Iraq War.

 

Although there is, as I noted in another of these TalkPsych essays, a gut-brain connection, are we right to trust our gut? Does the gut know best about interest rates, trade policy, and climate change? Or, mindful of smart people often doing dumb things, do we instead need more humility, more checking of gut hunches against hard reality, more critical thinking?

 

Drawing from today’s psychological science, one could write a book on both the powers and perils of intuition. (Indeed, I have—see here.) Here, shortened to an elevator speech, is the gist.

 

Intuition’s powers. Cognitive science reveals an unconscious mind—another mind backstage—that Freud never told us about. Much thinking occurs not “on screen” but off screen, out of sight, where reason does not know. Countless studies—of priming, implicit memory, empathic accuracy, thin slice social judgments, creativity, and right hemisphere processing—illustrate our nonrational, intuitive powers. We know more than we know we know. Thanks to our “overlearning” of automatic behaviors, those of us who learned to ride bikes as children can intuitively pedal away on one decades later. And a skilled violinist knows, without thinking, just where to place the bow, at what angle, with what pressure. “In apprehension, how like a god!,” exclaimed Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

 

Intuition’s perils. Other studiesof perceptual illusions, self-serving bias, illusory optimism, illusory correlation, confirmation bias, belief perseverance, the fundamental attribution error, misplaced fears, and the overconfidence phenomenon—confirm what literature and religion have long presumed: the powers and perils of pride. Moreover, these phenomena feed mistaken gut intuitions that produce deficient decisions by clinicians, interviewers, coaches, investors, gamblers, and would-be psychics. “Headpiece filled with straw,” opined T. S. Eliot.

 

Intuition’s failures often are akin to perceptual illusions—rooted in mechanisms that usually serve us well but sometimes lead us astray. Like doctors focused on detecting and treating disease, psychological scientists are skilled at detecting and calling attention to our mind’s predictable errors. They concur with the novelist Madeline L’Engle’s observation: “The naked intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument.”

 

The bottom line: our gut intuitions are terrific at some things, such as instantly reading emotions in others’ faces, but fail at others, such as guessing stocks, assessing risks, and predicting climate change. And so psychologists teach about intuition’s perils as well as its powers. We encourage critical thinking. We urge people, before trusting others’ gut intuitions, to ask: “What do you mean?” “How do you know?”

 

As physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit www.TalkPsych.com)

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Very interesting read here, I did not know that the Iraq war was launched by Bush stemming from a gut feeling. It makes sense though, we all generally slam the hammer on a yes or no based on what we convince ourselves prior to making a decision with our conscious. Our conscious makes a calculated decision based on past experiences, from success to failure with one decision we always remember on how to react or correct ourselves in a similar situations. Very interesting, my question is how do we determine if we are tricking ourselves through a conscious decision? Are there red flags we should mark in brains that tell us we are actually talking ourselves out of making a gut or conscious decision? I know it makes a difference depending on what situation, for instance knowing when to quit or cash out at the casino after a decent win. When I win big at the casino I always get a rush of confidence that tells me I could win more on the same machine or table if I stay. Generally I always loose my money, but there has been a few times I have told myself to stay and I went with my gut feeling and I then won even more money. 

If we could teach ourselves how to go with our gut feeling and not trick ourselves to believe something could be different maybe we would all make the right decisions. 

Thanks,

Logan C. Savick 

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).