Gut Feelings

Posted by Laura Maguire
administrator,Featured Contributor

This week’s show is about gut feelings—and the art of decision-making.

Sometimes we make decisions that we think long and hard about, but often we make decisions simply because it feels right. Call it a hunch, an intuition, or an instinct—what they all have in common is that we don’t know why we feel the way we do, yet the feeling can be so compelling, it moves us to act. The question is, when should we listen to our gut feelings and make decisions based on something we can’t explain? And when should we stop to think?

A first approach to this question might be to consider whether gut feelings are in some sense rational, even if we can’t offer explicit reasons for them. Perhaps for some gut instincts, we are responding unconsciously to particular cues in our environment. For example, sometimes people can sense when they are in danger without knowing exactly why they believe this. They just feel an unusual sense of foreboding. There may be good reasons for this feeling—but those reasons are hidden from consciousness. 

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would have a mechanism whereby we unconsciously perceive and respond to stimuli in our enironment. Conscious deliberation is a slow and sometimes cumbersome process, and we need to be able act quickly in a lot of situations, especially when we are in danger. So, it seems safe to say that at least some gut feelings are reliable and we ought to listen to those. 

Of course, it’s also possible to feel a sense of foreboding because of general anxiety, stress, or paranoia. Just because we feel we are in danger, it doesn’t automatically follow that we are. But how do we tell the difference? Is there some way to distinguish reliable intuitions from other feelings we might have? The degree of certainty we feel doesn’t seem to be good indicator. Just think of all the gamblers who lose everything because they are absolutely certain they will win based on nothing but a feeling.

Things look a little different when we focus on the gut feelings of experts in a particular field. Take chicken sexers, for example! A chicken sexer is someone whose job is to sort newborn male from female chickens. Without the requisite training, telling a male chick from a female is a very difficult thing to do. There are no obvious traits one has that the other lacks. But professional chicken sexers are able to tell male from female at a quick glance. What’s really interesting about chicken sexers is that they can’t explain how they know the difference—they simply know. They have developed a gut feeling for it.

You might wonder how chicken sexers would ever be able to train someone else to do the job if they themselves can’t explain how they know the difference. Curiously, if you want to learn how to do this, you just have to watch a professional at work until you too develop the instinct. With a little bit of time and effort, you can start to see the difference, though you probably won’t be able to say what that difference is either. You’ll just know by instinct.

The case of the chicken sexer suggests two things: (1) the instincts of experts with the requisite training are more reliable than ordinary gut feelings, and (2) it’s possible to train your gut in a way that by-passes the rational part of your mind. That’s really fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t help us with the bigger question of whether ordinary gut feelings are to be trusted.

Some people are deeply suspicious of gut feelings and believe that when it comes to important life decisions, we ought to carefully evaluate all the pros and cons, and then make a rational, deliberate choice. Why would you trust your fate to some mysterious and potentially unreliable feeling? Of course, an obvious exception to this is the decision to get married. Most people don’t carefully weigh the reasons for or against getting married, or if they do, they don’t decide based on that. Even if they take some time to figure out what the right thing to do is, it’s not to calculate the mathematical odds of future happiness—it’s to tune into what feels right.

Let’s set aside this example because love is clearly a matter of the heart, not the head. What about less emotionally-charged decisions, like where you ought to invest money? Should you trust your gut to make investment choices, or is this a case where you ought to do research, make some calculations, and then decide?

On the surface, it may seem like this is a clear-cut case where we ought to make various careful calculations before investing. But what if it turned out that people who trusted their gut instincts made better investment choices than those who attempted to make a rational, well-informed choice? Some surprising research on gut instincts suggests that this is often the case. The reason is that we can become overwhelmed with too much information and need some fast and simple way to cut through all the noise. When there are many variables to consider, thinking through them all becomes a monumental task, so we need some other way to pick out the best strategy. And that’s where the gut comes in. 

Our guest this week, psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, is a leading expert on gut feelings. A lot of his work focuses on heuristics—simple rules of thumb we use when making decisions, big and small. He is the author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious (2008), Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (2000), and many other volumes.

I’m looking forward to getting some answers to the following questions: How do we know when our gut feelings are reliable? Is there a way to distinguish trustworthy intuitions from irrational feelings and biases? And what about the gut feelings of experts? Are they fundamentally different from ordinary gut feelings? Should we be willing to trust an expert’s instincts when the expert is unable to provide an explanation for them? What role should intuitive thinking play in important decision making? And how can we train ourselves to have better gut instincts?

July 20, 2012


Martha Love's picture
Submitted by Martha Love (not verified) on July 21, 2012

Thank you for this article on gut feelings and I loved your intriguing questions. I wanted to give some responses to these questions, if I may. I say responses because these are questions that are only truly answered by each person within their own knowledge of themselves and their own gut feelings. At any rate, here are my responses, which I base on both my own gut feeling awareness and over 40 years of counseling and research study on gut feelings with hundreds of people:

“How do we know when our gut feelings are reliable? Is there a way to distinguish trustworthy intuitions from irrational feelings and biases?”
Irrational feelings are our emotions, not the feelings in our guts, although unfortunately often confused. Let me explain briefly the difference between emotions and gut feelings, because I think this is a key to this question. Emotions are generally felt above the gut, above the hara, and are a combination of feeling from the gut and thinking from the head, i.e. fear, emptiness in gut feeling combined with a projection from the head as to a specified threat. Gut feelings have no thinking component like emotions do, gut feelings are pure feeling of emptiness or fullness and they are the source of all feeling in emotions. Emotions are psycho-somatic, where as gut feelings are pure feeling and relate to the state of the human organism. Gut feelings are your truth, so to speak, related to how well your needs for acceptance and control of your own responses to life/freedom is being met, and they are in that way always reliable. It can take quite a bit of reflection on our gut feelings to begin to understand this, to see this in your own experience, particularly if one is not use to exploring feelings and distinguishing the difference in emotions and gut feelings. But just like it is so important to understand the difference in thinking and feeling to increase our EI, our emotional intelligence, it is important to take the time to understand the difference in emotional feelings and gut feelings to further increase our intelligence and facility that we may like to call "Intuition". So, we may have increased our "EI" by understanding the difference in our thinking and feelings or emotions, but let's go further and increase our "Intuitive Intelligence" by understanding and reflecting upon the difference in our emotional feelings and gut feelings.

“What role should intuitive thinking play in important decision making? And how can we train ourselves to have better gut instincts?”

We need to explore our gut instincts, not just use them with some vague idea of what they are. One really has to "know Thyself" and take the effort to do that inner work to use their gut feelings successfully in decision-making. There is much more to our gut instincts than just "pattern recognition brain impressions", although these patterns are certainly a result of our gut intelligence combined with our thinking—and rather it is accurate thinking or not depends upon whether we use our gut feelings as a premise of our thinking or leave out the impact of experience upon us and marginalize our human needs as unimportant to consider in problem-solving. This all effects the accuracy and haze in these mental patterns and our ability to have and increase Intuitive Intelligence. My colleague Robert Sterling and I have found as counselors, researchers, and educators over 40 plus years on this subject that people find that their intuition and healthy decision-making increases exponentially with somatic reflection on the awareness of one's gut feelings.

We think you would find it intriguing to check out our recent book "What's Behind Your Belly Button? A Psychological Perspective of the Intelligence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct", available on Amazon, as we have included techniques and discussion on increasing gut feeling awareness (understanding the difference in gut feelings and emotional feelings) and how through gut feeling reflection we "update" our old "patterns" in our thinking brain, increase our Intuition, and learn to serve our inner needs as human beings in healthy decision-making.

Aloha and I look forward to more of your blog articles,
Martha Love

Harold G. Neuman's picture
Submitted by Harold G. Neuman (not verified) on July 21, 2012

So many questions, John/Ken! Your illustration begs the following Yogism: when you come to a fork in the road, take it. To most all of those questions, I will proffer the following notion: most all of us have an ingrained spider sense, or gut feeling if you prefer. This sense develops, over time and experiences gained. (I am not great with words like heuristics, hermenutics and such like.) Your expert, GG, probably knows a lot about these things. In any case, "training" comes with personal experience. Those of us who live longest, without encountering "bad luck" (or poor decisions), leading to early death, finally develop a pretty good spider sense, or as you have characterized it: gut feelings. Irrational feelings and biases are bumps in the road---part of the learning curve---which we may eventually overcome if sagacity prevails. (If not, that early death becomes and ever-more present possibility.) Gut feelings are not science yet. But, even though there are "life sciences", neither is life.

Dr. Sardonicus's picture
Submitted by Dr. Sardonicus (not verified) on July 22, 2012

In his revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man, Copyright 1996, Stephen Jay Gould said: "...never trust a gut feeling...". That admonition came at the beginning of his discussion of correlation, cause and factor analysis on page 269. Certainly, many of the IQ scientists he debunks in his book (Goddard, Broca, Burt, etc.) did not, in many cases at least, adhere to such advice which may have been given in their day. Gut feelings of experts must have some more credible bases---at least when related to those specific areas of expertise. Lay persons who have gut feelings about things with which they have no knowledge, experience or training are most likely talking through their hat.

Gut feelings do have some credibility, it seems. They have saved our skins, literally and figuratively, many times.
And the longer we survive, the better they become as predictors. Your expert may or may not affirm that assertion. But, I'll stand by it, regardless. We go with what we know.

Michael J Ahles's picture
Submitted by Michael J Ahles (not verified) on July 22, 2012

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

One of my favorite poems!

Surely the best path to take is the One that feels right and that has made all the Oneness or unity of me.
Follow your heart, it rings true,


Arvoasitis's picture
Submitted by Arvoasitis (not verified) on July 25, 2012

I must admit being unclear on the precise distinction between a feeling and an emotion. A feeling is defined as a sensation or awareness of something, an impression produced on a person, an opinion, sentiment or foreboding. An emotion seems to be the outward expression of a feeling, sometimes accompanied by bodily reactions.
Nevertheless, a gut feeling as I understand it, is never reliable, otherwise it would be knowledge. However, almost all human decisions must be made with incomplete knowledge, therefore on gut feelings. The point is that gut feelings should be pursued by an effort to get further information or knowledge as corroboration, time permitting, before action is taken.

The Armchair Philosopher's picture
Submitted by The Armchair Ph... (not verified) on July 26, 2012

Gut feelings must date back to the earliest experiences of the earliest human ancestors. These are senses we are now dimly aware of, but which once must have meant life or death on a daily basis. Old habits die hard. Damned good thing, don't you think?

peter reagan's picture
Submitted by peter reagan (not verified) on July 26, 2012

2 points. 1: intuition looks to me like how animals think.... before we muddled up the process with our incredibly useful invention of language and its right arm, logic
2: Intuition collects unbelievable reams of information that we fail to describe... thats how the woman predicted the rock fall... who knows.. heard things, saw things etc. Logic would not have helped a bit.

The Armchair Philosopher's picture
Submitted by The Armchair Ph... (not verified) on July 27, 2012

I know this is beyond the scope and timeframe of this post. However, my wife is watching the Summer Olympics tonight. She has believed, for many years, that I would somehow; someday, become a re-patriated and patriotic supporter of such endeavors involving the United States. But, alas, after living outside these United States, in exile for a time; after seeing another side of the world's aspect---I simply cannot get excited about the Olympic Games: not for the United States, nor for anyone else. It is political window dressing and a huge commercial feather for all: money simply makes it all happen, skip all of the ifs, ands, and buts. My gut feelings about the games are: 1) they do little for world accord; 2) they are a platform for vanity, rather than sincere and mutual interest in honest competition; and, 3) they do nothing for the prestige of any participating nation, save in the eyes of that nation's citizenry.

I hope all goes well, for the sake of all. I will not be watching, though, because my gut feeling tells me not to do so.

greenlibertarian's picture
Submitted by greenlibertarian (not verified) on July 29, 2012

This is not unlike the Malcolm Gladwell #1 Bestseller <i>blink</i> [sic].

The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
[criticisms acknowledged]

Handy tools for an over-analyzer like myself. Gut feelings are supermajority correct and advantageous.

Not to mention I was in IT for decades. Logic and reason were defied more than a few times.

The Armchair Philosopher's picture
Submitted by The Armchair Ph... (not verified) on July 30, 2012

Dr. S. sounds like a hardcore evolutionary biologist, speaking through a sociological megaphone. Which is certainly AOK with me. I like his impressions of the late Dr. Gould, whom I consider one of the finer minds of the twentieth century, along with Linus Pauling; Christopher Hitchens and several others who are still alive. Me? I am one of the mid-roaders. I believe that gut feelings are both a blessing and a curse. Here it is: those gut feelings that arise from inexperience, tend to be genuine. They are most likely to be that "spider sense"---the survival instinct, latent in our reptilian brain. Those that arise from teachings are, by their nature, biased. They are less reliable, seems to me, because they are open to variable interpretation. Such stimuli lead us to a fifty-fifty proposition: Doomed, if you do; damned if you don't. Uh, I guess fifty-fifty is overly optimistic. If this is confusing, imagine MY difficulty in trying to explain the notion. I'll try again: education leads us to educated responses, which are, by their nature weighted and biased, in favor of what we have been taught---and the institution behind that teaching.

Those things we learn, with no supervision, teaching or tutoring, have an unbiased "purity". If I survive a fall from a small cliff, memory will keep me from making that same error again (I hope).

If after sufficient financial counseling, I plunge into a second shaky venture and lose another $100,000, then I must be a dumb shit. They are out there. Time after time.

(I have not done the $200,000 experience---yet.)