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The Repercussions Of Ignoring Your Gut Instinct

the conscious mindI talk to clients a lot about gut instincts, intuition or whatever else you want to call that feeling you get of deep knowing without being able to explain it.

And the reason why I talk about them so often is because too many people ignore them because they frequently don’t seem logical or rational.

In fact quite the opposite, they often seem nebulous, dumb or just plain bizarre.

The net result is when we summarily dismiss the feeling because we don’t understand it, we frequently regret doing so at a later date.

The Repercussions Of Ignoring Your Gut Instinct

I had a good friend who got married even though his gut told him not to. It didn’t end well.

I took a job even though my instinct was screaming, “Nooooooooo Tim, head for the hills!!!” at me. That was an unmitigated disaster.

And I had a friend who was seriously injured in a car accident, even though he felt uneasy from the get-go about accepting the lift home after he missed the last bus.

The common theme with all of the above examples is that the gut feeling didn’t really make much sense at a conscious level and thus they were relatively easy to dismiss.

My friend adored his wife, I liked the look of the job I took and it was great money and my friend was just getting a lift home after having a few beers.

What could possibly go wrong?

It’s Tricky Analyzing A Gut Feeling Consciously

Your gut instincts come from the very old and highly evolved unconscious part of your brain.

Whereas analysis is done at the conscious level (the neo-cortex) which is a few hundred thousands years behind evolutionary speaking and nothing like as efficient at dealing with information.

The best analogy I have ever heard (which I think came from the awesome book, Your Brain At Work) in illustrating the disparity of power, is to think of your conscious mind as being the change in your pocket and your unconscious mind as the US economy.

Have you ever had a feeling that you just know somebody is behind you even though you haven’t heard or seen anything?

Then when you turn round there is indeed somebody sneaking up on you with a large axe?

Ok, hopefully not a large axe, but maybe a friend planning to make you jump?

How did you know?

You will actually find it almost impossible to answer that question because the truth is you don’t know how you knew, you just did.

When anybody comes into close proximity to you there is a slight increase in temperature from their body heat and also movement of air as they move.

The changes are tiny and imperceptible at a conscious level because your conscious struggles to deal  adequately with more than about 4 pieces of information at any one time.

The Limitations Of Your Conscious Mind

But your unconscious mind can deal with thousands of things at once and your amygdala, which is the part of your brain on alert for possible threats, has noticed the changes and sends you a warning signal.

Now imagine there really is a mad axeman behind you.

Are you better trying to work out what is giving you a sense of unease, or are you better acting on the uneasy feeling and getting out of the way?

Sitting there thinking, “I have no idea why I’m feeling like this and therefore I may as well ignore the message” is likely to end up with you sans head.

I know that is a rather absurd and over the top example, but it clearly demonstrates why trying to analyze such situations is rarely helpful.

gut instinct quoteYour Unconscious Is Much Smarter Than You Think

At a conscious level my friend had no idea his wife was going to be crushingly jealous and controlling because she hadn’t overtly demonstrated that side of her character at that point.

I hadn’t noticed that I didn’t trust my soon to be boss because there was nothing tangible to put my finger on. On the surface he seemed like a nice guy and said all the right things.

And the friend who got in the car hadn’t smelt alcohol on the breath of the driver consciously or noticed any of the tiny telltale signs that would have told him the guy shouldn’t be driving and he’d be better walking home.

But in each situation there were enough subtle clues to have the amygdala screaming at all of us, “WTF!!! Did you see that, did you see that??”

Only the amygdala can’t talk or scream at you and it can’t explain to you the myriad of information it has gathered on your behalf to keep you safe.

All it can do is send a feeling that something isn’t quite right and then hopes to hell you won’t ignore it.

I’m not saying that you should never analyze gut feelings because I’m sure there are occasions when that’s useful, even if I’m struggling to think of any at the moment. Please let me know in the comments if you can come up with a great example.

However, I am saying that ignoring your gut feeling because you cannot make sense of it analytically is akin to ignoring the, “Don’t feed the Lions” sign at the zoo because you personally have never seen anybody eaten by a Lion.

What’s your take, do you listen to your intuition or rationalize the crap out of it?

I’m also curious to know if you have ever ignored a really strong gut feeling and severely regretted it afterward.

More Amazing Brain Stuff

If you are fascinated by the human brain and both it’s brilliance and limitations, check out ‘70 Amazing Facts About Your Brain And Why It Does Weird Things’

28 comments to The Repercussions Of Ignoring Your Gut Instinct

  • You taught me to listen to my gut instinct, Tim, and I’ve never forgotten it. So many times, I’ve overridden my initial feelings and over thought a situation until I’ve rationalized myself out of any emotionally-driven action I might have taken. And nearly always not for the better.

    I’ve always loved how in HTBRAH you explain it – as an process of our brains protecting us over millions of years of evolution, that makes so much more sense to me, than non-specific “intuition” “sixth sense” or any other common description.

  • Rob Collins

    I once stuck at a job for at least a year longer than I should have done because I convinced myself that my gut instinct must be faulty. I later realised that I did in fact just have some a-hole managers.

  • Brilliant post Tim, such a fascinating topic! Here’s my story. For years i had an unfounded aversion to driving in red cars and avoided it completely. In my early 20′s i was working in one part of South Africa, and was getting a lift that was arranged by my employer to visit my family 14 hours drive away. In the early hours of the morning when my lift pulled in, to my horror, it turned out to be two sister in two seperate red cars. About two hours into the trip as we came into a small town one sister braked and the other rode straight into the back of her car. No one was hurt but both cars were damaged and it was a nightmare getting home.
    A while later i was learning to drive and we had a vetinary emergency so i drove the same employer’s car which happened to be RED and accidentally, well i sort of went over a small wall i didn’t see! No one was hurt except the car which had a bent chassis,it was awful. To this day i avoid red cars.

    • Not sure that fits under intuition Tania, more like superstition and coincidence.

      Statistical speaking red cars are actually the safest cars on the round according to research done by Dan Ariely!

  • Mantha

    Curious if you feel that gut instinct can be positive as well as negative? I guess I tend to turn it around? Instead of thinking that I followed my gut to turn down a job, I would say I trusted my gut and started my own business. Maybe it can be looked at both ways?
    Thanks for the great read as usual.

  • The brain is amazing. I was raised in the bush up north and I learned how to listen to the tress and breeze and how to use my nose as well as my eyes. The first time I encountered wolves when I was three I felt their eyes on my back and my gut instinct kicked in. I screamed and our dogs and my dad arrived in an instant. I had the same gut instinct warning happen when I was eight and we were berry picking. I could feel there was a grizzly in the bushes before I smelled, saw and heard her so I didn’t enter the berry patch. I slowly and silently backed up until I was close to my dad. I made eye contact pointed and mouthed the word “bear” and we ere out of there in an eye blink.

    Throughout my life I have always trusted my gut instinct ie. my intuition and it has served me well. For example when I met my husband my gut told me “he’s the one for you”. Every job I choose to either accept or reject today is based on what my gut tells me.

  • Jamie Beaumont

    Great post Tim. I’ve recently completed a NLP practitioner course where a large amount of time was spent on working with involuntary signals generated in the unconscious . Fascinating and very powerful

  • I’ve lived my live in the attempt to understand the connection to intuition. I also believe that we can’t rationalise much how the intuition works. Maybe experiencing life, we’ll mysteriously find out at one point.

    Like your friend, when I first got married, the intuition was shouting helpless not to do it. But I still did it, and later on, when my ex started showing me sides of his character that I hadn’t seen before and I was sinking in depression, I regretted greatly for ignoring my gut feeling.

    I put an end to that marriage and I promised to myself that next time, I’ll go for the man with whom my intuition agrees. Well, things were not as simple. The next time when I felt deep in my guts that the man was meant for me, he was hesitant about us. So, completely crushed, I walked away.

    The second time when I followed my intuition, I ended up being happily married. :)

    It was great to read your post and the comments. It is a very important topic for the understanding of our inner lives.

  • Rob Collins

    I’d appreciate some advice from the more intuitive people here (I’m very rational).

    How can you tune into your intuition? How do you tell the difference between intuition and luck?

    I know several people who say they “knew” something was going to happen. But really they are just justifying a hunch after the fact. If their intuition had been wrong, they would have dismissed it as irrelevant.

    For example, people have gut feelings about lottery numbers. How is that different from intuition?

    How can I identify what intuition is?

  • Rob, I am not sure I can be of much help but at least I’ll try. My take on intuition comes from the spirituality perspective. If you want to tune into your intuition, meditating can help . Once you’ve heard the voice of intuition, you know what it is. :)

    Probably each person would give you a different answer to how you can identify what intuition is. There are also books on awakening the intuitive eye. My personal definition is the inner voice of wisdom, which guides you towards genuine experiences in life.

    Luck is external to us, it is part of the life circumstances around us. Being at the right time and place, that’s what luck is.

    I am not sure if there is any connection between luck and intuition.

    As for the gut feeling about the lottery numbers, I’d rather say that’s premonition and I don’t know much about it. Good luck with finding your intuition. :)

  • Daniel Pedersen

    I enjoyed reading your post, very interesting and engaging as always. I was curious though about the workings of your unconscious. I get a bit nervous around people I haven’t met, especially when more attention than usual is focused on me. That feeling of fear, I guess you could call it, I assume comes from your unconscious? I understand that that fear isn’t really warranted because I am in no real danger. So, that feeling of needing to run away from that situation isn’t really warranted. Can your beliefs, or whatever else there is, influence how your unconscious interprets inputs? Or are these feelings coming from different places and one only need distinguish between the origins to know which one to listen to? Or does your unconscious tell you everything is okay, speaking of the scenario above, and then you start the cycle of your fears in your conscious mind and ignore your unconscious? Hope that wasn’t too confusing. Thanks!

    • Yes it comes from your unconscious and yes it is connected to your belief system.

      Finding the underlying belief and eradicating it is the tricky bit because in cases like that it’s probably been lurking in there since childhood.

      The one thing you shouldn’t do is to fight it each time, recognize it, acknowledge it and realize it’s only a feeling and it’s not real.

  • Thank you! You cited here something that I’ve been talking to my friends for a long time: “your subconscious mind is way smarter than you think”. I’ve been reading about the subconscious recently and I am learning so much. Your article also added value to my reading.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • I’ve been thinking about Tim’s question about situations where it would be good or appropriate to analyse our gut feeling.

    I rely quite a bit on my 6th sense – both as a woman and a life coach – and I think as a ‘situation-calibration-tool’ it can be pretty darn accurate.

    But here’s the thing. Sometimes I think the warning or gut feel from our unconscious mind is MISINTERPRETED by our conscious mind.

    My thinking is that the voice of warning that comes from our unconscious is always relevant and warranted and should not be ignored.

    However, since our conscious mind has a habit to DDG (distort, delete and generalise) – who is to say that it interpreted the SOURCE of the warning accurately in the first place?

    My thinking is that if we don’t understand the source (or reason for) the gut feel – we might take the wrong course of action. And that could actually be worse sometimes than ignoring the warning!

    And – as I think Daniel eluded to in his reply – since the gut feeling comes from our unconscious mind it is probably fair to say that it might be influenced by other stuff along its way. Such as our beliefs, meta programs, values,conditioning etc etc.

    So, by the time the gut feeling reaches our consciousness it might actually be a bit of a ‘distorted warning’ already – and is therefore probably worth analysing a bit first to see why we are feeling uneasy – before we take action.

    (PS: This certainly does not count in a life or death situation – if you get a gut feel it’s probably best to duck or hide – not to analyse. Worse that could happen is that you could look stupid)

  • “But here’s the thing. Sometimes I think the warning or gut feel from our unconscious mind is MISINTERPRETED by our conscious mind.”

    Exactly and that’s almost certainly what happened in the 3 examples I gave. The conscious tried to rationalize and it did so with a less than accurate belief system etc

  • SkippyB

    Thanks, how did you know my paper this week is on intuition versus trial and error!!??
    I have always had gut instincts about things, I think in the medical field, you often just ‘know’, although you cannot categorically say what it is. Perhaps now I should just say that my amygdala is telling me!!

  • Sammy

    Little late to the party… But I thought I’d share anyway :)

    I’ve found over the years that my ‘people instinct’ has never led me astray. A few examples…

    I was in middle school – grade 7 to be exact – and it was the first day. We were in the yard before the first bell, a year older and thus significantly cooler than we were last year, when a new girl approached. I disliked her before I’d even spoken to her. As this was out of character for me (even as a silly preteen I did my best to stay true to the golden rule) I decided over the course of the day on a handful of reasons why I shouldn’t like her – she was loud, loved to be the centre of attention, was over confident… and I hated her outfit. Much to my dismay, she quickly became part of our ‘group’. And over time my opinion changed – she was fun, I’m sure she doesn’t care about the attention, confidence and over confidence are different, duh… And since when did you care about clothes? Long story short, halfway through the school year she stared circulating rumours about me. She lied to my friends, classmates, anyone that would listen. I started getting harassing emails, phone calls… The bullying got so bad I changed schools. To this day, I don’t know what motivated her to single me out and take such actions… But I was right about her ;)

    Example number two takes place many years later, with a much wiser version of my self (though not very wise at all…) I worked at a fancy restaurant, and managed the bar side. I’d been friends with one of the chefs for a little over a year – he’d confessed his drinking problem to me, and I did what I could to encourage him to make the changes he so often spoke of. He sent me a message late one night explaining he’d had a bad day, and could use some company to distract him from picking up the bottle. Wanting desperately to be considered a good person, and a good friend, I agreed to come visit. I will never forget the feeling that overtook me when I backed out of my driveway that night. I went anyway, convincing myself I was being silly. And although I don’t believe in ‘regret’ as much as ‘lesson learned’, that night changed the course of my life and changed the way I view the world. I was assaulted – and although that admittance is a heavy one in such a light hearted forum (apologies btw), the point is the same. Give your instincts the credit they deserve :)