Trust your gut, they say. This is commonplace advice, sometimes even offered by therapists. I ask you, though, dear reader, to consider the world. Should those who are trusting their intuition, their instincts, their fervor-driven sense of righteousness continue to “trust their gut?”
I get the idea — the intention — of those who believe wisdom is discoverable in the body, its sensations, and instinctive tendencies. They think you may be in danger of working against yourself, not honoring your personal truth. You have dismissed or discounted something within to which you should be listening.
The data on the subject suggests hesitation. Not that you will always be wrong when relying on your feelings, nor right if you evaluate possible future action in a more analytic, rational way. Rather, the “gut” provides worthwhile direction in some situations, while in others better guidance leads to questioning its message.
Before we go deeper, let’s summarize both sides of the argument.
Each of us is the product of the long evolutionary chronicle of our ancestors. The qualities helpful to their survival and procreation are wired inside of us, their descendants. Necessity often demanded quick decisions with few comparable memories upon which to tap. Our existence as 21st-century humans proves the excellence of many of their actions.
We all possess an internal sense of ourselves unknowable beyond the boundary of our skin. This personal state is informative. We need to honor its wisdom.
In many instances, we have no books to consult, no time to find scientific scholarship applicable to the present decision confronting us. Besides, abstract ideas can’t tell us if we should date person X, try to make friends with individual Y, or talk back to parent Z.
MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:
Few of us avoid mistakes in judgment. For instance, our first impression of a bright or attractive acquaintance often causes us to believe he is also superior in other, unseen ways. Only time and additional contact reveal the truth. A swift, positive, global opinion is called a “halo effect.”
The choices made at a “feeling level” discount how emotions can lead us astray. Think of the occasions when love, anger, revenge, or fear has led to worsening your troubles.
Homo sapiens are poor affective forecasters. The research of Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrates a tendency to underestimate our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our reaction to life’s disappointments. Put another way, we are lousy at deep-seated, unthinking predications of our well-being in the months and years ahead.
The divorce rate supports the same notion; so do the common, but erroneous, expectations of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award. The optimistic assumption of a large, lasting boost of happiness delivered by children over the course of the time they live with us is generally incorrect, as well.
The simplest answer on trusting your gut, your feelings, or your instincts is this: the matter depends on the quality and quantity of your previous exposure to situations like the one in which you find yourself.
Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein* looked at how and what experts learned while practicing their profession. The “gift” or “sixth-sense” required years of particularized employment in the field.
As the first author wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, two conditions are necessary for acquiring the skill endowing people with this kind of savvy:
an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice
Gary Klein described how this applies to firefighting commanders. How do they know, he wondered, what decisions to make on the spot without comparing options in a systematic and time-consuming fashion?
They could draw on the repertoire of patterns they had compiled during more than a decade of both real and virtual experience to identify a plausible option, which they considered first.
They evaluated this option by mentally simulating it to see if it would work in the situation they were facing…. If the course of action seemed appropriate, they would implement it. If it had shortcomings, they would modify it.
If they could not easily modify it, they would turn to the next most plausible option and run through the same procedure until an acceptable course of action was found.
Master chess players have this capacity — this intuition — to size up a chessboard in mid-game, almost at once. Anesthesiologists do, too. The regularity, orderliness and limited nature of the countless cases they have encountered provided the prompt feedback on their performance needed to “become” intuitive.
The outcome of the contest or the surgery graded their choices straight away.
What does this tell us about our own ability to come up with instinctive, “felt” decisions in everyday life?
Much hinges on what our exposure has been to the kind of circumstances offering immediate success or failure from which to learn. We lack the thousands upon thousands of contests played by a grandmaster or the uncounted number of patients over decades of training and work as an anesthesiologist.
Such examples of expert, rapid grasp of the essential features of an event pertains to the part of human experience governed by clear cut guidelines or rules. The physician makes use of his remembered storehouse of biological, physiological, and chemical science. The Chessmaster retrieves his internal archive of permitted movements of the chess pieces and the results of past strategies he and others employed.
Human relationships, in contrast, have more variables, unknowable psychological dynamics, no access to what another person is thinking or sensing in the moment, or a complete history of his life. They are not orderly.
A political pundit or a stockbroker faces a task every bit as daunting and unpredictable. Kahneman says any claim from them of extraordinary intuition is “self-delusional at best, sometimes worse.”
Having said this, I doubt you shall give up on your hunches. Remember, though, the information you receive about the adequacy or error of your choice of friends and lovers, for example, often is delayed and equivocal.
Some people are good to be around one-on-one and not in a group, trustworthy in fulfilling our routine expectations but not all, pleasant in the short run but not for long.
Most of us are permitted but a slice of time with individuals we believe we know well. Full understanding might take years of both talk and observation, however. Their secrets and private behavior leave us ignorant of their darker corners.
In summary, I’d suggest you hesitate when you are told to “trust your gut.” Other than those moments when delay is impossible, many problems give you the luxury of getting advice, reflecting on patterns of comparable past encounters, and recalling your own default tendencies.
The latter might include your basic optimism or pessimism, inclination to approach or avoid, extraversion or introversion, toughness or vulnerability, etc.
You might consider alternative interpretations of what you confront and estimate the potential benefits and costs of imagined ways of dealing with whatever is ahead. Don’t forget to ask yourself what mood you are in and whether you are hungry! The influence of temporary states such as these might be significant.
If it makes you feel any better, well-trained counselors with untold hours of experience shouldn’t always “trust their gut” either.
There is lots of research on this, too!
The painting, Freedom from Fear, derives from Wikimedia Commons and is described this way:
The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.
Following that image I’ve placed a photo taken by Staff Sargent Craig Cisek of the U.S. Air Force. It shows a firefighter spraying water during a simulated C-130 Hercules plane crash. The image is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.