What Is a Gut Feeling, and Should You Trust it?

Before relying on your intuition, ask yourself these questions

For something most people rely on so heavily, intuition is also fairly nebulous, mysterious, and ill-defined. Where does it come from? What causes it to kick in? And what does your “gut” know that your brain doesn’t?

We tend to talk about the two as separate, often conflicting entities, but your rational mind and your intuition are more closely linked than you might realize. In fact, the former is a tool of the latter: Your intuition uses the information your mind has already collected. (In that, it differs from instinct, which is a hardwired response to real or perceived danger.)

One widely cited paper described intuition as “affectively charged judgments that arise through rapid, nonconscious, and holistic associations” — in other words, decisions tinged by emotion and experience, both working under the radar to steer you in a certain direction.

That’s not to say that the resulting judgments are necessarily good ones. “One of the dangers is that we can have false intuition or feelings of knowing that turn out to be misleading,” says Gerard Hodgkinson, professor of strategic management and behavioral science at Alliance Manchester Business School. Your friend’s been acting a little off lately, and you can tell she’s upset with you, even if you don’t know why. (She isn’t.) You get a little lost while on vacation, but you’re convinced your hotel is down a few blocks that way. (It’s not.) You’ve got a great feeling about a potential new hire, so you offer them the job with the confidence that they’ll crush it. (They don’t.)

To get a more objective sense of how your intuition tends to play out, psychologist Daniel Simons, a professor at the University of Illinois and co-author of the book The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, recommends asking two questions: “One is, ‘Will your intuitions lead you to problems or not?’ And then the second is ‘Are your intuitions accurate, [or] do they actively reflect the state of the world?’”

In some cases, your intuition may not be accurate, but may still keep you safe — for example, you see someone get sick at a restaurant, assume it’s because of what they ate, and opt to leave the table before ordering.

“You see a correlation between these two things, but it doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship,” Simons says. Still, a gut feeling that you don’t want to eat at the restaurant is an overreaction at worst — and could actually keep you safe. “So trusting your intuition there, even if it’s not accurate, might be the right thing to do.”

On the flipside, relying too frequently on your intuition, without stopping to assess its accuracy, can snowball into a skewed view of the world around you. Before you act on a gut feeling, it helps to ask yourself a few questions — about your mental state, your expertise, and the situation at hand — to interrogate whether your gut is steering you right.

How much time and information do I have?

In most cases, logic and reasoning will help you achieve the best results.

Generally, you’re better off going the analytical route than following your gut instincts, Simons says. For example, he notes, master chess players who have to play games very quickly can still reliably predict their opponent’s next moves, but with additional time, their decisions improve considerably.

But there’s not always enough time for that; sometimes, you have to make decisions based on incomplete information and under time constraints. That’s when intuition can be helpful — but it’s important to consider when to use it, and when to ignore it.

How much experience do I have with this situation?

The logic here is pretty straightforward: The more familiar you are with something, the better your intuition about it will be, in large part because you’re already attuned to the relevant environmental cues that can help you make a decision. For example, a firefighter in a burning house shouts to his colleagues to get out of the house quickly, and right after everyone manages to escape, the house collapses. How did he know what would happen? He may not have been able to articulate it in the moment, but he felt the heat under his feet, which told him that the house was no longer safe.

The experience doesn’t have to be formal or professional, either — maybe you’re on a first date with someone whose comments feel like red flags because they remind you of a difficult ex. That’s a cue, too — and one informed by learning from experience. Regardless of the context, your daily interactions and impressions all help you learn to recognize patterns in the world around you. If you’re getting a gut feeling, think back to when you’ve been in a similar situation, what you did, how it turned out, and how that decision stacks up against what you’re now feeling pulled to do.

On the other hand, if you’re getting a gut feeling that doesn’t seem to be based on any past experience, it might not be worth taking seriously.

Am I confusing intuition with stereotyping?

Even if your gut feeling is based on precedent, it may still be steering you down a harmful path. Left unexamined, intuition can be the basis for racism, sexism, and xenophobia, allowing tribalism to triumph over more open-minded thinking. Let’s revisit the first date scenario: If you’re out with someone who’s the same race or religion as the aforementioned difficult ex, for example, take a moment to think critically about whether that link is what’s causing your suspicions.

“Just because [an intuitive reaction] feels right doesn’t mean it is,” Simons says. Because our gut feelings are based on our experiences, our intuition won’t be accurate if our experiences are skewed. And as humans, we’re generally terrible at realizing our own limits or having a sense of how much we don’t know.

What am I feeling?

Intuition and emotion are inseparable. Just think of the language we use to describe intuition: “I have a bad feeling about this,” or “I feel good about that.”

That’s why it pays to be aware of your emotional state when you’re about to make a choice. Ask yourself: How am I feeling right now? How might those feelings be affecting my perception of the situation? For example, when you’re nervous about a new job opportunity, is it because you’re worried you won’t be a good fit for it? Or is something else causing your hesitation?

Ask yourself: How am I feeling right now? How might those feelings be affecting my perception of the situation?

“We live and die by the judgments we make. But we can at least factor in our emotions into our decisions, rather than trying to suppress them, which means we have full information on the table.” Hodgkinson says. “We need to learn to reason with our emotions.”

Are other people involved?

Sometimes, no matter what your intuition is telling you, choices must be made as a team. Let’s say a nurse at the hospital has a feeling that a patient, who is showing no external symptoms, still isn’t doing well.

This nurse now has two options: Either she acts on her own, or raises her concern with others involved in the patient’s care. With the latter, the doctor overseeing the case might know about a preexisting condition that alleviates the nurse’s concern, or maybe a specialist confirms her hunch that something is wrong. Either way, getting others involved in the decision can serve as a quality-control measure, helping to avoid gut feelings based on bad information.

Comparing your intuitive decisions with others’ can help you realize that your gut feeling is actually fallible. “We can’t [always] say with the information we’ve got if there is a pattern,” Simons says. “We don’t ever experience everything that’s happening around us.” But combining your snippets of information with what other people have gleaned can create a fuller picture.

All Rights Reserved for Olga Mecking

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