Should You Trust Your Gut to Make Decisions?

Image for post
Image for post

Should you trust your gut feelings when you have to make a personal or professional decision?? Does information prompt you to make a decision solely on rational logic? Are gut feelings an emotion or something else? These are questions that have prompted a great deal of research and discussion for hundreds of years.

A Definition of Gut Feelings

Gut feelings has been defined as instinct or intuition or an immediate or basic feeling or reaction without a logical rationale compared to an opinion based on facts. If you have a gut feeling about something, you may be confident, even though you may not be able to give factual reasons.

The word intuition comes from the Latin verb intueri translated as “consider” or from the late middle English word intuit, “to contemplate”. Intuition has been defined the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired. Different writers have given intuition a wide variety of meanings, ranging from direct access to unconscious knowledge, unconscious cognition, inner sensing, inner insight to unconscious pattern-recognition or the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. Some philosophers have argued that “intuition” is often misunderstood or misused to mean instinct, truth, belief, and meaning, whereas others contend that faculties such as instinct, belief and intuition are factually related.

Both Eastern and Western philosophers have studied the concept in great detail. In the East intuition is mostly intertwined with religion and spirituality. In the West, intuition can be traced back to Plato. In his book Republic he tries to define intuition as a fundamental capacity of human reason to comprehend the true nature of reality.

In his book Meditations on First Philosophy, the French mathematician Descartes refers to an intuition as a pre-existing knowledge gained through rational reasoning or discovering truth through contemplation. This definition is commonly referred to as rational intuition. Later philosophers, such as David Hume, have more ambiguous interpretations of intuition.

German Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed intuition was basic sensory information provided by the cognitive faculty of sensibility (equivalent to what might loosely be called perception). Immanuel Kant held that our mind casts all of our external intuitions in the form of space, and all of our internal intuitions (memory, thought) in the form of time.

According to Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, knowledge could only be attained through the intellectual manipulation of carefully made observations. He rejected any other means of acquiring knowledge such as intuition. In Carl Jung‘s theory of the ego, he defined intuition as “perception via the unconscious”: using sense-perception only as a starting point, to bring forth ideas, images, possibilities, ways out of a blocked situation, by a process that is mostly unconscious.

Intuitive abilities were quantitatively tested at Yale University in the 1970s. While studying nonverbal communication, researchers noted that some subjects were able to read nonverbal facial cues before reinforcement occurred. In employing a similar design, they noted that highly intuitive subjects made decisions quickly but could not identify their rationale. Their level of accuracy, however, did not differ from that of non intuitive subjects.

The Brain-Gut Connection

In his book, The Mind-Gut Connection, author Mayer writes: “Your gut has capabilities that surpass all our other organs and even rival your brain. It has its own nervous system, known in scientific literature as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and [is] often referred to in the media as the ‘second brain.’”

As Mayer describes, this second brain consists of about 100 million nerve cells sandwiched between layers of the gut running all the way from the esophagus to the end of the large intestine. This “second brain” and our regular brain use the same neurotransmitters and are connected through neural, endocrine, and immune pathways, so it truly is an integrated intelligent system with information flowing in both directions.

What makes the second brain unique from other organs is that — in animals at least — when it’s separated from the main brain it continues to pilot its complex activities on its own. The system is extremely interesting to researchers because of this independent streak, and the effect that it may have on our mental health. After his many years of research, Mayer humbly says it’s “highly plausible” that there is a connection between the gut and mental health conditions such as depression. Scientists from the University of North Carolina have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which have associations with our mood. Often the medications people with depression take are designed to adjust the uptake of these neurotransmitters, a treatment scientist at the time designed thinking only of the brain, but it may now also have implications in the microbiome.

What makes it even more intriguing is that more than 95% of our body’s serotonin is produced and stored in the gut in specialized enterochromaffin cells, says Dr Mayer, adding: “By far the largest store of the molecule that plays such a big role in modulating our mood and our wellbeing — also appetite, pain sensitivity — is stored in the gut.”

A research paper, published in Physiology, claims that gut-to-brain signals are a “powerful influence on emotions, mood and decisions” and are often a response to worrisome or threatening stumuli and events.

According to Florida State neuroscientist Linda Rinaman, “the gut and brain are constantly communicating via the vagus nerve — a sprawling two-way network that’s 100 times larger than the surface of the skin and sends more signals to the brain than any other organ system in the body.” The nerve carries top-down messages from the brain to the body as well as bottom-up messages commonly described as “gut feelings” and it is these that prompt us to evaluate a situation or avoid it altogether.

Together with James Maniscalco, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Rinaman contend that signals from our gastrointestinal tract can work as a red flag that actually stops us making bad or dangerous decisions. “The neuroscience of gut feelings has come a long way in my lifetime and we are learning more valuable lessons every day,” Rinaman said. “Vagal feedback signals are very protective and encourage caution.”

Similarly, their data also revealed that our diet can have a major impact on the quality of the gut’s signals and this can sometimes lead to altered mood or behavior. For example, Rinaman claims that a high-fat diet can lead to inflammatory response in the GI tract, which changes signals from the vagus nerve and can in turn lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. “Evidence shows that modifying the diet, perhaps by consuming probiotics, can impact your mood and behavioral state,” Rinaman explained.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California tells us that it is important to pay attention to “somatic markers.” Originating in the insula (the island in the brain responsible for social emotions like pride or guilt) and the amygdala (which cues our response to threats), they send messages that something just feels right — or it doesn’t. The more you pay attention to the outcome of trusting your intuition in combination with facts, the better your future decision-making can become.

Scientific evidence shows a strong connection between chronic diseases and inflammation. Inflammation is most commonly rooted in the gut, where around 70 percent of our immune system resides. Our food choices result in oxidative stress, setting the stage for inflammatory ailments such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, obesity and more. The health of your gut directly impacts the health of your brain. The gut communicates with our immune system and also communicates with the brain using, among other things, neurotransmitters. One function of neurotransmitters is that they that they send key messages to the brain, resulting in various effects on the body. Serotonin and dopamine are some well-known neurotransmitters that are typically associated with a good mood. In fact, while many believe that serotonin is primarily produced in the brain, it’s been found that up to 90 percent of serotonin is actually created in the gut.

Dr. Helen Messer, the Chief Medical Officer at Viome, which analyzes the gut microbiome, says “the bacteria in the gut make or consume the majority of neurotransmitters in our bodies.” Essentially, if your gut is producing an adequate amount of mood-improving chemicals like serotonin, then it will send signals to the brain that will result in various benefits such as better sleep and satiety. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but that’s the general rundown.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have proposed an evolutionary framework to understand why microbes living in the gut affect the brain and behaviour, which was published in Nature Reviews Microbiology.Katerina Johnson (Department of Experimental Psychology) and Kevin Foster (Department of Zoology) assessed data from studies on the gut-brain axis to suggest how that gut feeling evolved. Their research has shown that gut bacteria (especially species belonging to Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) can influence social behavior, anxiety, stress and depressive-like behaviour. Katerina explained: “We know there are numerous possible mechanisms, including communication via the vagus nerve (major nerve linking the gut and brain), the immune system and hormonal changes, as well as the production of neuroactive chemicals by gut microbes. But why should we expect gut bacteria to affect behavior at all?” In their paper, Johnson and Foster consider the evolutionary pressures that may have led to that gut feeling.

Foster advanced the theory that members of the gut microbiome actively manipulate our behavior for their own benefit. For instance, gut bacteria might change our behavior in ways that make us more sociable to increase their likelihood of transmission to new hosts. Indeed, it is intriguing that numerous species of gut bacteria can produce chemicals of identical structure to our brain’s own neurotransmitters (or their precursors). However, in light of evolutionary theory, the authors suggest this scenario, that our brains are manipulated by our microbes, is very unlikely given the immense diversity of microbial species and strains inhabiting the gut.

In addition, our physiology may have adapted to make use of our associated microbes. Similar to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that an absence of microbes impairs immune system development, we propose that we may have evolved to depend on our microbes for normal brain function, such that a change in our gut microbiome could have effects on behavior.” Johnson and Foster suggest that an understanding of the evolution of gut-brain communication may help us to effectively engineer this microbial ecosystem with potential benefits for mental health and well-being.

Approximately 20% of those living with inflammatory bowel disease report feeling anxious or blue for extended periods of time. When their disease flares, this rate may exceed 60%.

Interestingly, in a recent large study 2,007 people living with inflammatory bowel disease were observed over nine years. The study found a strong association between symptoms of depression or anxiety and disease activity over time. So, anxiety and depression are likely to make the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease worse long-term.

Other Research on Gut Feelings in Decision-Making

Shabnam Mousavi, at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and the lead author of “Risk, Uncertainty, And Heuristics,” published a paper on intuitive decision-making, extending the research of Daniel Kahneman’s work, which showed how often humans elect to make a snap judgment based on intuition, rather than deliberating with available information.

Mousavi concludes, based on several experiments, that too much information can be just as misleading as following your gut feelings in some cases. Mousavi argues that we need to take intuitive decision-making one step further by recognizing why people have developed such instincts and when best to use them. While business favors doing a cost/benefit analysis and a rational approach before deciding which way to go, in an article for Johns Hopkins’ The Hub, Mousavi recommends an alternative: Create a decision tree that starts with the fundamental question: “If the worst-case scenario of a proposal were to occur, could you survive?” If no, don’t pursue it. If yes, the next question might be whether the company was well-positioned as a first mover in an area. By making each decision sequentially, the company can more effectively limit its information to relevant factors — avoiding information overload and not attempting to quantify the unquantifiable.”

Associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Joel Pearson, conducted a study on intuition–and for the first time, his research team found evidence that people can use their intuition to make better, faster, more accurate and more confident decisions. The report was subsequently published in the journal, Psychological Science.

Pearson’s research team defined intuition as the “brain process that gives people the ability to make decisions without the use of analytical reasoning.” Up until this study, the problem in assessing intuition has been the lack of a reliable test to gather objective data on intuition and even prove that it exists. However, Pearson and his team finally developed a series of experiments that could better judge whether a person was using intuition or not, and the extent to which instincts came into play in any given decision.

In summary, Pearson’s study concluded that the type and frequency of subliminal messages we receive directly correlated with both one’s instinctual ability to make accurate decisions, and one’s ability to trust the instincts in the first place. In business and in life, this study teaches us that surrounding ourselves with more positive, subliminal inputs not only helps us make better decisions, but also helps us to trust those decisions over time.

Artificial intelligence and robotics may outperform doctors in some areas, but a new study highlights the important role human intuition plays in medical decisions. Computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) analyzed 10 years of data on patients in intensive care and found that doctors’ gut feelings about how their patients were doing influenced how many tests they ordered. The researchers collected information on all factors a doctor might consider in deciding to order tests, including a patient’s age, gender, disease type and severity. They also measured how doctors felt about their patients by analyzing care notes using an algorithm that scores text for positive and negative sentiment.

According to the study lead Mohammad Ghassemi, “there’s something about a doctor’s experience, and their years of training and practice, that allows them to know in a more comprehensive sense, beyond just the list of symptoms, whether you’re doing well or not.”

The study helps to explain why there can be so much variation in the use of medical resources, even in similar cases. Whether the doctors’ hunches about their patients were correct is another matter. Modern medicine has tended to value more conscious, deliberate analysis over intuitive reasoning. Some doctors argue this has resulted in overly simplistic “tick box” care.

Clinical guidelines may define the most likely presentation, treatment and outcome of a disease but may not apply in unique cases. Research shows that the earliest impressions a person forms when confronted with a problem can often be more accurate than later analysis. Studies of physicians demonstrate that the best predictor of diagnostic accuracy is having a hunch about a patient’s condition in the first minutes of an encounter. One study published in BMJ found that a doctor’s gut feeling that something was wrong when treating a child in primary care can have greater diagnostic value than most signs and symptoms.

Other studies have shown that instructing medical trainees to use intuition can lead to equal or greater accuracy in diagnosis. This may be because clinical intuition has more to do with empathy than expertise. One recent study found that general practitioners who scored highest on empathy were four times as likely to report using gut feelings in practice compared to those who scored lowest on empathy. It remains to be seen whether this intuition is a uniquely human dimension of care. According to MIT study coauthor Tuka Alhanai, “The question is, can you get the machine to do something like that?”

Not all research studies point to the benefits of intuition.

Image for post
Image for post

A new study says you should think long and hard and fight against your intuition.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Jennifer Lerner teamed up with Christine MaKellams of the University of La Verne to show that — contrary to popular belief — systematic thinkers are better at reading people than their intuitive counterparts, especially in unfamiliar situations. Their research paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others — that is, to be empathically accurate,” the paper’s abstract read. “Some are better at this than others, a difference which may be explained in part by mode of thought.”

To determine which mode was the winner, Lerner and MaKellams ran four studies. The first was an online survey that asked participants to predict whether systematic or intuitive thinking would help them interpret emotions more accurately. Unsurprisingly, most people thought intuition would win. The two researchers then worked with executive-level professionals in studies two to four, randomly assigning each participant to either interview or be interviewed by another participant. At the end of the mock interview, both individuals were asked to assess their own emotions during the session and what they perceived their partner’s emotions to be.

Lerner and MaKellams found, by comparing the assessments, that systematic thinkers were the ultimate context of real-life interviews, this means that your first impression is not always a good predictor of the kind of person you are facing, no matter if you are the interviewer or the interviewee. The age-old proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover” indeed holds true. But here’s the challenge: We are wired to make quick judgments based on our assumptions, something MaKellams described as an automatic reflex. On the other hand, she said, systematic thinking is effortful, takes more time and requires individuals to go through every aspect of a situation before making a decision.

“The most surprising thing [about the research] is that our assumptions about what makes us better people readers are not aligned with reality,” she told Forbes. “People think we should be intuitive. But in novel situations, when you’re with people you may not know well, intuition doesn’t help you all that much. Thinking slowly and deliberately works better.”

Critiques of intuition are complicated by the fact that intuition is such a slippery word. Its definition can be stretched to mean almost anything, from innate instinct to professional judgment to plain-old common sense. But people generally agree that intuition refers to the brain’s process of interpreting and reaching conclusions without resorting to conscious thught.

Critics of the reliance on intuition or gut feelings point out that we have a deep-seated need to see patterns. The mind’s well-documented facility for pattern recognition seems to lie at the very core of intuition — it’s how the brain synthesizes information from the past and uses it to understand the present and anticipate the future. But it can get us into trouble because of our unconscious desire to identify patterns. When confronted with a new phenomenon, our brains try to categorize it based on previous experiences to fit a pattern stored in our memories. The problem is that in making that fit, we inevitably filter out the very things that make a new phenomenon new.

New artificial intelligent decision-support tools such as Agent-Based Modeling, Interactive Evolution and Open-Ended Search can provide decision-makers with valuable processes and tools to aid in the decision-making processes that can be used in combination with intuition and gut feelings.

Intuition and Gut Feelings in Business

In business many famous CEOs have discounted research and data and made some very tough calls based largely (if not solely) on their gut instinct — sometimes leading to riches and other times to catastrophic losses.

Steve Jobs was famous for making critical decisions at Apple without first consulting fact-based business data. In 2010, Jobs accurately predicted that the tablet could actually overtake the PC one day, despite many data reports to the contrary. Following his intuition, in April of that same year, he launched the iPad, disregarding the many doubters who doomed it to fail. Richard Branson, famed founder of Virgin once said, “I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.”

A Fortune Knowledge Group study reports that 62 percent of executives feel it is often necessary to rely on gut feelings and soft factors when making big decisions on partnerships and proposals.

Many leaders believe good decisions focus on the logical, reasoning part of their minds. Actually, what neuroscience tells us is that there’s more to our brain than the gray matter that rests between our ears. Other parts of our body do essential work processing information. And, the best leaders know how to analyze and use that information.

And The Bottom Line Is?

Relying on your intuition generally has a bad reputation, especially in the Western part of the world where analytic thinking has been steadily promoted over the past decades. Gradually, many have come to think that humans have progressed from relying on primitive, magical and religious thinking to analytic and scientific thinking. As a result, they view emotions and intuition as fallible, even whimsical, tools.

However, this attitude is based on some myths about our brain and gut, some scientists would argue. Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties. They are appraisals of what you have just experienced or thought of — in this sense, they are also a form of information processing.

Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next. This is described in what scientists call the “predictive processing framework”.

Intuition or gut feelings, as with creativity, can actually improve with experience. In the psychological literature, intuition is often explained as one of two general modes of thinking, along with analytic reasoning. Intuitive thinking is described as automatic, fast, and subconscious. Analytic thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, conscious and deliberate.

Many take the division between analytic and intuitive thinking to mean that the two types of processing (or “thinking styles”) are opposites, working in a see-saw manner. However, a recent meta-analysis — an investigation where the impact of a group of studies is measured — has shown that analytic and intuitive thinking are typically not correlated and could happen at the same time.

So while it is true that one style of thinking likely feels dominant over the other in any situation — in particular analytic thinking — the subconscious nature of intuitive thinking makes it hard to determine exactly when it occurs, since so much happens under the bonnet of our awareness.

Indeed, the two thinking styles are in fact complementary and can work in concert — we regularly employ them together. Even groundbreaking scientific research may start with intuitive knowledge that enables scientists to formulate innovative ideas and hypotheses, which later can be validated through rigorous testing and analysis. What’s more, while intuition is seen as sloppy and inaccurate, analytic thinking can be detrimental as well. Studies have shown that overthinking can seriously hinder our decision-making process.

In other cases, analytic thinking may simply consist of post-hoc justifications or rationalizations of decisions based on intuitive thinking. This occurs for example when we have to explain our decisions in moral dilemmas. This effect has let some people refer to analytic thinking as the “press secretary” or “inner lawyer” of intuition. Oftentimes we don’t know why we make decisions, but we still want to have reasons for our decisions. So should we just rely on our intuition, given that it aids our decision-making? It’s complicated.

Image for post
Image for post

Because intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic and fast processing, it also falls prey to misguidances, such as cognitive biases. These are systematic errors in thinking, that can automatically occur. Despite this, familiarizing yourself with common cognitive biases can help you spot them in future occasions. Similarly, since fast processing is ancient, it can sometimes be a little out of date.

For every situation that involves a decision based on your assessment, consider whether your intuition has correctly assessed the situation. Is it an evolutionary old or new situation? Does it involve cognitive biases? Do you have experience or expertise in this type of situation? If it is evolutionary old, involves a cognitive bias, and you don’t have expertise in it, then rely on analytic thinking. If not, feel free to trust your intuitive thinking.

Gut feelings are a fast, automatic, subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analyzing can’t. We need to accept that intuitive and analytic thinking should occur together, and be weighed up against each other in difficult decision-making situations. Gary Klein, in his book, Intuition at Work, expresses the common wisdom when he says that intuition is “at the center of the decision-making process,” and that analysis is, at best, “a supporting tool for making intuitive decisions.”

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Image for post
Image for post

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store