Go With Your Gut: The Science of Instinct

Go With Your Gut: The Science of Instinct
From Recruiter - January 3, 2017

Article by Shelley Levitt

I had a feeling about it.
I just knew.
It was a hunch.
My intuition told me.
I acted on instinct.
I felt it in my gut.

Weve all had these experiences countless times in our lives. Ithappens when were interviewing a potentialhire or being interviewed ourselves. It happenswhen were sizing up a potential business partner or new client. It happens when we walk into a restaurant and catch sight of our blind date at the bar, or when we cross the threshold into the two-story colonial our real estate agent has assured us is just perfect for us.

Were gripped by a powerful, visceral feeling, a deep sense of certainty that tells us what to do:Hire the guy. Dont take the job. Move forward with the deal. This is the person youre going to marry. Make an offer on the house.

And years later, when wetell the story, wellsay it was the best decision we ever made.

Good thing welistened to ourgut.

The Power of Instinct

The phenomenon we often refer to as gut instinct has been studied by a broad range of experts, including psychologists, economists, microbiologists, and sociologists. When it comes to all this research, theres widespread agreement on a couple of points.

First, our gut instinct isnt some magical, mystical force. Rather, says cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, Ph.D., author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions and The Power of Intuition, Its the way we translate our experience into judgment and actions.

When Klein studied how individuals such as firefighters and emergency medical personnel make instant life-or-death decisions, he found they were able to size up situations rapidly by picking up on subtle cues, patterns, and anomalies. Then, they wouldtake decisive action without having to stop and conduct deliberate analysis. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for the pioneering work he did in decision-making, called this System 1 thinking. Its fast, instinctual, and emotional.

The second accepted factis that we couldnt survive without our gut feelings.

More than 99 percent of the decisions we make every day, we make without deliberation, says Carl Spetzler, Ph.D., cofounder and CEO of Strategic Decisions Group, a strategic management consulting firm headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Hes also lead author of the new book Decision Quality: Value Creation from Better Business Decisions.

Those automatic decisionswhat Malcolm Gladwell called thinking without thinking in his best-selling book Blinkinclude everything from choosing which foot to start with when you walk to hitting the brakes when you see a line of cars stopped in front of you on the highway or grabbing your 1-year-old when she begins tumbling off the sofa.

If you think youd make better choices if emotions didnt get in your way, think again.

Without our intuitions, wed be paralyzed, Klein says. There is very powerful research on people with brain damage that disconnects the emotional parts of their brains from the decision-making parts of their brains. Their IQ is not affected, but their lives are terribly impaired. They cant hold down jobs. Their relationships suffer. It can take them 45 minutes to figure out what to order from a menu because they dont have any sense of what they want.

On the other handand theres always another hand in the realm of decision-makingrelying on your gut alone is a pretty efficient formula for wrecking a business, a marriage, or a life. In their groundbreaking work, Kahneman and his late partner Amos Tversky discoveredthat intuitive thinking without further reflection is often faulty thinking. Numerous biases are at play when we make fast decisions under conditions of uncertainty. To cite just a few:

- We tend to have an optimistic bias,believing well succeed in the face of long odds.
- We place more faith in things weveheard about recently than in events that happened years ago and are less easy to remember; thats called availability bias.
- Vivid occurrences are also more likely to influence us, which is why we typically overestimate the number of people killed in plane accidents and underestimate fatalities from car crashes.
Confirmation bias means we often ignore information that doesnt support our existing beliefs and give too much weight to data thats in sync with our current mindset.
- In hindsight bias, or the I-knew-it-all-along effect, we imagine that we were better at predicting, say, the ups and downs in our industry than we actually were.

Put all these biases together, and we end up with what Kahneman calls WYSIATI, an acronym for what you see is all there is. Thats the unconscious conviction that everything we need to make a decision is right in front of us. After all, we feel it in our gut.

Paying attention to your gut, most experts would agree, is a valuable first step in reaching a decision. But unless the decision involves something like picking out a puppy from a litter, youll want to combine your gut instinct with more effortful and logical deliberation, whichKahneman calls System 2 thinking. If System 1 provides a fast-and-furious first draft, System 2 hones that draft into a professional PowerPoint presentation. Its slow, deliberate, and rational.

Talking Back to Your Gut

Youdont want to take what your gut is telling you at face value. Instead, you need to investigate whats driving yourfirst impression. Psychologist Bruce Pfau, Ph.D., is a New York-based senior partner at KPMG, one of the Big Four auditors, where he advises C-suite executives on human resources strategies and communications.

What we label a gut feeling is always based on a set of variables that we havent spent time articulating, Pfau says. Only when you bring those facts into the light of day can you analyze them objectively and dispassionately and move on to making a good decision.

If youre considering forming a partnership with somebody but have a nebulous feeling of unease, Pfau suggests free-associating: Let your mind start putting words to what it is about this person thats making you uncomfortable. It can start with something vague, [like] I just have the feeling hes not going to be a good partner.

Dig deeper. Ask yourself, What about him is making me feel that way? Does he seem too complacent? Too argumentative? Is it something in his body language? Something he said or the way he said it? It might be helpful to jot down notes or enlist someone else as a sounding board to guide your reflection. Then test your feelings against available data.

Decision-Making in the Real World

Larry Gadea is the founder and CEO of Envoy, a San Francisco-based company that helps businesses replace paper sign-in books with iPad-based visitor registration.


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