Should We Trust Our Gut? : The Idealization of Intuition and Instinct

IT is common to hear advice that amounts to “going with your gut”, “trusting your instincts” or “following your intuition.” But these suggestions seem to indicate that the answers we arrive at through careful thought are sometimes (or perhaps usually) inferior to our immediate reactions. Consider the following representative quotes:

Keep the faith, don’t lose your perseverance and always trust your gut extinct.

Paula Abdul, Performer

I always trust my gut reaction; it’s always right.

Kiana Tom, Television Host

Intuition comes very close to clairvoyance; it appears to be the extrasensory perception of reality.

Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize Winner (Medicine)


Before making a decision about whether to trust our gut, it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to first try to understand what exactly our “gut” is. There are a number of possibilities:

1. Sometimes gut feelings can be explained by our evolved instincts that are encoded in our DNA, which exist because they helped our ancestors survive in the world as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. For example, we are likely to feel anxious when confronted with something unfamiliar (a large unknown animal, for example), or feel fear when we hear a loud noise. These sort of reactions are very useful at times, but typically only work well in scenarios involving danger or conditions that are similar to those that our prehistoric ancestors encountered. At a birthday party where balloons are being popped, a fear of loud noises is not useful. On the other hand, when walking in a canyon, a loud noise might indicate a cascade of rocks and a fear response might save your life.

2. In many cases our intuition is associated with our immediate emotional responses to stimuli. For example, we might get a positive feeling towards someone who has a warm smile, or feel negatively towards a person who is raggedly dressed. While our emotional responses clearly are important (e.g. it’s important to feel sympathy towards a friend when they look sad, and to feel fear when encountering someone who has hurt you in the past) they can also be distorted and counter productive. For example, many people feel slighted if a friend fails to return their phone call. However, one is likely to feel better about the situation (despite his initial emotional response) if he reminds himself that there are all sorts of reasons that a friend doesn’t return calls, including being temporarily busy or absent minded. On the other hand, those who trust in their initial response of hurt and anger (which might stem, for example, from a lack of confidence or insecurity) are more likely to blow up at the friend or act coldly during the next encounter, which could damage a generally fulfilling relationship. Unfortunately, it can be tricky to differentiate between emotional responses that are useful and improve our lives, and those that are based on misperceptions and are unhelpful. Both of these types of emotional responses feel equally real when you are experiencing them, and it is often only when we carefully scrutinize them from a neutral point of view that we can tell the difference.

3. Sometimes our “intuition” is based on repeated experience that we access automatically. For example, a surgeon might get an uneasy feeling during an operation, which could be triggered automatically when she notices similarities between the current patient and difficult surgical cases she has had in the past. Another example would be a painter who suddenly has an impulse to add more thinner to the paint he is using, which could be a subconscious reaction based on years of art making experience. Generally when we repeat similar tasks enough times, their execution becomes automatic and begins to feel like an instinct. We might then say that we have developed an intuition for effectively completing the tasks. These kinds of responses can occur much faster than those controlled by conscious thought, and thus can be very efficient and useful. Of course, if the initial learning phase that leads to one’s intuitions is not of good quality (e.g. we complete the task poorly while learning), the intuition will be of poor quality as well. Sometimes intuitions of this form are experienced in emotional form as an uneasy feeling, in particular when our (possibly subconscious) expectations (based on experience, training or practice) do not match what we see. A day trader, for example, might decide to sell a stock due to an uncomfortable feeling about it. In reality, what may have happened is that the stock chart had a pattern that did not conform to his expectations. This intuition can be quite useful since those cases that don’t match our predictions can be especially difficult, require special attention, and present unknown hazards.

4. Societal conditioning can create a kind of gut reaction that operates without conscious awareness. If we are told enough times when we are young not to trust strangers, then we may feel immediately distrustful when a stranger strikes up a conversation. The trouble with responses of this kind is that they are often formed without thought or careful reflection. For example, if we grow up in an area where a lot of racism is present, we might be told that certain races are inherently dishonest, and so could have strong intuitive reactions to people of those races based on this idea. Similarly, if we are taught to believe that black cats bring bad luck, we might start feeling uneasy in a house with a black cat. Since the ideas that society conditions us with may not be true, it can be very valuable to be aware of these automatic reactions and to carefully evaluate their logical and empirical validity.

5. Our brains are capable of forming very strong associations (between perfumes and people, for instance) and this can lead to what might be interpreted as “gut feelings”. For example, if we were attacked by dogs when we were young, we may feel anxious around dogs later in life, even when we know on an intellectual level that we are safe around them. Such associations clearly have a valuable survival purpose, but on the other hand, can push us into self defeating behavior (like refusing to visit the house of a friend because she has a dog). Our brain’s natural tendency is to be “better safe than sorry”, as your ancestors were very unlikely to die from forming spurious associations (such as that dogs are generally dangerous), but were at real risk of dying if they failed to form certain real associations (such as that wolves are dangerous).

As we can see, what people call their “gut” is most likely a hodgepodge of various brain activities, which include survival instincts, emotional responses, automatic recall of learned information, societal conditioning, and associations. It is not at all obvious that these systems will lead to good decision making in general. Each has its very important uses, as well as significant domains where it will fail. A business man cannot rely on fight or flight instincts when giving an important presentation, a person with an anxiety disorder cannot expect his emotional responses to be accurate representations of reality, a doctor cannot rely on his old impulses when learning a totally new surgical technique, and no one can expect that their society will condition them only with true information. Hence, to make truly good decisions, it is essential to evaluate your intuition to make sure that it is likely to be accurate in the situation at hand. Each time our gut tells us something, we cannot know whether to trust it until we understand where that feeling originates from.

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One Response to Should We Trust Our Gut? : The Idealization of Intuition and Instinct

  1. Julia Galef says:

    This is a great way of parsing the different things people tend to lump under the single phrase “gut instinct”. I think many people also use the phrase to mean something extra-sensory entirely. Or rather, they think “intuition” is actually like a sixth sense, giving them information that can’t be traced back to the other five senses. An example: the feeling that something bad/good is going to happen, without any concrete justification.
    It’s also worth mentioning that widespread faith in intuition may partly be due to selective memory (i.e., remembering the times when you had a hunch about something and it happened to be true, and forgetting/not noticing the times when your hunch didn’t pan out).

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