Gut Feelings and the Art of Decision-Making

Sunday, December 14, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Is It

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. Decisions based on intuition are not highly esteemed in business, politics, or medicine – which may lead decision-makers to construct elaborate post facto rationalizations to explain their intuitive choices. What place should intuitions have in important decision-making? Is there a role for expertise in developing reliable gut-feelings? John and Ken trust their instincts with Gerd Gigerenzer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

Listening Notes

How reliable are gut feelings? Should we trust ours or those of others around us? Are gut feelings based on reliable mechanisms or are they arbitrary whims of our baser instincts? These are just some of the questions that Ken and John address in today’s program features Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer from the Max-Planck Institut in Berlin.

Right out of the gate, John brings up the phenomenon of chicken sexing. Baby chicks all look the same. This makes it hard for chicken hatcheries to pick out the male chicks (which they need to eliminate). But certain people, chicken sexers, can tell the difference between male and female chicks, without knowing how in fact they do so. They simply follow their gut feelings. And they are exceedingly accurate in their assessments.

But Ken is unconvinced. He argues that while gut feelings might be useful in telling apart baby chicks or affairs of the heart, it seems preposterous that they could successfully guide our decision in mathematically complex matters like investing money.

To shed some light on the issue, John and Ken bring on Gerd Gigerenzer. In his research, Gerd has found that our intuitions tend to hone in on the one or two most important factors in a given situation and to ignore the rest. Moreover, if we follow these intuitions, i.e. our gut feelings, we fare better than if we deliberatively weigh the pros and cons. We don’t know the reasons for our gut feelings, nor how we’ve arrived at them—they simply seem to pop into our consciousnesses—but they are valuable guides in decision-making.

Both John and Ken are concerned that if someone can’t provide the reasons for her decision, and simply cites her gut feeling, justification for that decision will be hard to come by. How can we convince others to go along with our decisions, if we cannot account for how we arrived at those decisions nor produce any explicit reasons for accepting them? Gerd argues that performance should be the standard by which we measure reliability of intuitions. Judging by performance, expert intuitions are enormously successful in their particular fields. It is time, according to Gerd, that we start accepting the gut feelings of experts as reliable sources of decision-making in fields like business, politics, the law, and medicine.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter: Caitlin Esch (seek to 5:30) interviews people whose gut feelings have lead them out of precarious situations and even saved their lives.
  • 60-Second Philosopher: Ian Shoales (seek to 46:12) muses about a new stadium in Santa Clara, monster trucks, Lady Gaga, and why lawyers never lead to a good time.