We may think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, but we often base even high-stakes decisions on intuitions or "gut feelings" rather than explicit reasoning.
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?