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What Is A Gut Instinct? And Should I Trust Mine?

This post is in response to the guest post from Alisa Bowman, How My Gut Instinct Let Me Down. If you haven’t read that, this won’t make anything like as much sense to you, so go and read it now.

Unlike Alisa I have a strong belief we should all listen to our gut instincts more, not less frequently and I’m going to try and explain why I think it’s so important.

After that I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions and decide whether you want to pay closer attention to your own gut feelings.

I want to make one thing clear to begin with that’s absolutely crucial because this topic has a tendency to polarize people.

Some people believe their gut it the answer to all their questions and is never wrong. Whereas others believe conscious and careful analysis is always the best way forward.

They’re both wrong.

This is not a black and white topic and even experts disagree. There is a time and a place for both modes of operation and neither is foolproof for every person every time

Alisa mentioned she learned about the danger of relying too much on her gut instincts from her co-author Mary Ellen O’Toole an FBI Profiler.

Yet I could point to Gavin de Becker author of the brilliant ‘The Gift Of Fear’ (al) and a man who is regularly employed by the US Government on security issues for foreign dignitaries. de Becker firmly believes in listening to your gut instincts and it is a strong component in ‘The Gift of Fear’.

Both are experts and both cannot be right.

Firstly, I think we need to ascertain what a gut instinct is because if we don’t agree on a baseline then it’s difficult to come to an objective conclusion.

What Is Gut Instinct, Is It Magic?

Alisa mentioned worrying that her husband and daughter had been involved in a car accident when they were a long time going for dinner and her husband wasn’t answering his cell phone.

That wasn’t a gut instinct.

That was merely her mind making up stories and looking on the dark side of things, as our minds have a tendency to do from time to time. Especially when we’re lacking information.

She also mentioned the time she threw $100 on a random number at roulette knowing the number would come up, and low and behold it did. At the time she said she conveniently forgot about the times she had done something similar and lost.

She was right, the winning bet wasn’t a gut instinct either, it was just a lucky hunch that we all have on occasions.

The reason I know neither of the examples above were gut instincts is because they weren’t based on any new information whatsoever.

Gut instincts aren’t magic and they are always based on acquired information, even if we are not aware of it at the time, or for that matter, after the event.

Therefore, the situation with the douchebag that took her to his room may have been a gut instinct that was wrong.

Or, it could have been that she overruled her gut instinct, didn’t notice it or simply didn’t have one. In this instance it’s almost impossible to tell so long after the event.

Note: For the purposes of this post I’m not talking about people having random premonitions, or family members communicating when thousands of miles apart and without the aid of modern technology. That’s something altogether different and not within the scope of this post.

You’re internal voice saying don’t go for that promotion, probably isn’t your gut instinct. The same voice saying don’t ask for the date probably isn’t either and neither is the one that tells you to give the finger to the asshole who cut you up in traffic.

With those first two examples, I say they probably aren’t gut instincts, but they could be and this is why it’s so tricky.

Deep down you may have noticed signs that your boss gets intimidated by employees wanting promotion and always finds a way to let them go eventually.

Similarly, you may have picked up unconsciously on signs that the perspective date is married.

We can acquire lots of data such as a white patch where a wedding band was a few hours before without even being consciously aware that we are doing so. Until that is, we get THAT feeling that says “Don’t do it!”

A Gut Instinct is Rapid Cognition

One of my favorite all time books is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. (al) I want to tell a story from the book that beautifully explains the difference between rapid cognition and merely guessing or acting on a hunch.

A researcher tells the story of a firefighter in Cleveland who answered a routine call with his men. It was in the back of a one-and-a-half story house in a residential neighborhood in the kitchen.

The firefighters broke down the door, laid down their hose, and began dousing the fire with water.

It should have abated, but it didn’t. As the fire lieutenant recalls, he suddenly thought to himself, “There’s something wrong here,” and he immediately ordered his men out.

Moments after they fled, the floor they had been standing on collapsed. The fire had been in the basement, not the kitchen as it appeared. When asked how he knew to get out, the fireman thought it was ESP, which of course it wasn’t.

It took well over two hours of questioning for the fire lieutenant to piece together how he knew to get out. (First, the fire didn’t respond as it was supposed to; second, the fire was abnormally hot; third, it was quiet when it should have been noisier given the heat.)

In the example above the firefighter was receiving information all the time for his unconscious mind to process.

However, to have logically walked through the information one piece at a time until he came to the realization the floor was going to collapse would have taken too long and everybody would have died.

His brain knew that, and rather than fannying about processing the information in the usual manner it bypassed his critical faculty and sent him the kinesthetic feeling to get out.

The Myth of Multitasking

As you read this post all your senses are literally being bombarded by thousands upon thousands of separate pieces of information.

Fortunately for your sanity your neocortex (or conscious mind) can only process about four pieces of information at any one point in time and there is a degradation in performance when it gets past one.

Yes, you read that correctly. Just dealing with two pieces of information at a conscious level simultaneously causes your brain problems. If you want to know more check out my post Cannabis is Better For You Than Multitasking

At the moment your brain is deleting most of your experience and concentrating on certain aspects, such as reading this blog post. You weren’t thinking about your right foot a moment ago, but hey presto, you are now.

However, even though your conscious mind cannot pay attention to everything at once, that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there.

Similarly, it doesn’t mean your unconscious mind, and in particular when it comes to potential danger, your amygdala, isn’t paying attention to it, because it is.

It’s just that it chooses not to waste your valuable time with meaningless minutiae and treats information on a need to know basis.

Your Unconscious Mind Is Always On The Case

I’m sure you’ve driven from point A to point C at some time before realizing you can’t even remember passing through point B. You may think you were reckless and that you could have killed somebody being so inattentive.

But that’s almost certainly not the case.

Even though your conscious mind was away with the fairies planning on trapping Bob from Accounts under the mistletoe, your unconscious mind still knew what was happening and would have dragged you back to reality in a heartbeat if an emergency had arisen.

I’m slightly getting off topic but only as a way of explaining the power of your unconscious compared to your conscious mind and with gut instincts we are always talking about the unconscious mind.

In his book ‘Multiple Intelligences‘, (al) Howard Gardner claims one of the ‘new’ aspects of intelligence is that of intrapersonal skills.

People who are highly intrapersonal are very good at spotting and then understanding their own internal signals and they will by default have a head start at reading gut instincts than most people.

Successful card players and professional gamblers tend to have excellent intrapersonal skills as do experienced meditators, although it is, like most skills, one that can be improved on for most people with patience and practice.

Take the fire officer in ‘Blink’ as an example. Yes he had a gut instinct, yes he had rapid cognition, but there was also a large element of initial training as well learning from constant exposure to similar situations.

Make no mistake, I would not have had that gut instinct in that situation and neither would you.

Are Gut Instincts Contextual?

In cases like that it’s not unreasonable to compare gut instincts to muscle memory. A professional tennis player isn’t thinking about how he’ll hit the ball on the top of his serve when he tosses it up, because it’s programmed into his unconscious.

Therefore, many people who have excellent gut instincts have either had formal training such as soldiers, police officers, fire fighters etc, or they have trained themselves simply by paying attention over and over again to every internal signal they receive.

One interesting side note is that indigenous populations such as Native Americans. Maoris and  Aborigines are traditionally thought to have much higher intrapersonal skills and put a lot more store into them than we tend to in modern Society.

That begs the question are gut instincts contextual and I think without a doubt they often are and that may explain why some people will trust their gut in one situation and not another.

I’d rather take the gut instinct of an experienced pilot that has just lost two engines and has an idea of how to get the plane down that is nowhere to be found in any operators manual, than the guy in first class that has just finished his second bottle of champagne.

Similarly, I almost never override my gut when it comes to a new client because I’ve been burned too many times in the past.

I can honestly say that every client that I have ever had a negative gut feeling about prior to working with them didn’t pan out as either I or the client would have wanted.

Can I Improve My Gut Instinct?

But because gut instincts can be contextual doesn’t necessarily mean you should only ever listen to yours when you’re in a work environment or other familiar surroundings.

My belief is that you can get better at reading your gut instincts with active practice.

Although I have to add that for highly left-brained academic types it’s much harder because they have been taught that everything needs to be analyzed and as such they can dismiss gut feelings as being irrational.

Or worse still, they may not recognize them because they are so switched off to the possibility that something so nebulous and subjective could overrule rational thought.

If you have spent 20 years working in academia, then just the thought of living by your gut more often can create huge cognitive dissonance.

However, if people working in high pressure situations develop contextual and highly reliable gut instincts, then it’s obviously a learned skill to a large extent.

My advice would to listen to your body more carefully. Try and spot common denominators of when your gut is right and when it’s maybe wrong.

Then try and analyze them after the event.

Check what the feelings were like and if they are always the same or varied depending on the situation.

And don’t live in denial! I’ve no doubt that everybody has an erroneous gut feeling from time to time, so do not blindly trust your gut in every situation as some people seem to want to, unless that is, you have no choice.

I don’t want my accountant going on gut instinct when she works out my taxes.

One final thing. I’m not sure this is true (it’s just a gut feeling), but I suspect that as we are evolving as Human Beings we’re losing touch with our gut instinct more and more, that Society is driven more and more by logic and rationale.

In some ways that can be a good thing because in large part it’s is what drives science, but in other ways not so much, because a properly used gut instinct  can be an incredibly powerful thing.

So what’s your take? Do you agree, disagree, have you changed your mind one way or another?

By the way, I talk a lot about gut feelings in my book Aligning With Your Core Values, because for value work they are crucial. So if you want to know more now check it out.

47 comments to What Is A Gut Instinct? And Should I Trust Mine?

  • Computers are killing us. When I worked with my clients in the hills I remember being amazed at how intuition was just another way of going about things.
    A big part has to do with how we look at the world, your example of rapid cognition is brilliant.
    Meditation and AT helps, a lot with this.

    To trusting our gut. ;)

    • I have a love/hate relationship with computers. They are certainly very cool for a lot of things, but I’m not sure, leaving aside obvious medical and safety benefits, that anybody’s quality of life is improved in the long run by them.

  • Couldn’t agree more. One of the things I always do with my lovely clients is get them to tune in to their gut instincts, and I’ve lost count of how many copies of “Blink” I’ve given out in the process.

    I believe that nature gave us a great gift in giving us gut instincts, and that we are foolish to ignore them or think we know better. Every other animal on the planet uses its gut instinct to survive, why should we be any different?

    I also believe that the morals/ethics/values that underpin most human societies and religions are drawn from our common gut instincts about what is and is not the “right” way to behave.

    Love your gut, that’s what I say!

  • Wow! My brain just exploded! I’ve always been a big believer in using your gut instinct and how I knew the difference between that and just my own imagination screwing with me was that I couldn’t explain the instinct. You’ve given me a whole new perspective with the rapid cognition info. I started off disagreeing with you and now I better understand the complexities of this often under used ability. So glad you wrote this and so glad I read it!

  • maggie

    I think that you are comparing apples and oranges with avocados. Certainly most of us are in our heads so much that we have lost touch of our animal instincts, especially the gut related ones. And equally, being able to access that extra level of sensitivity and observation gives us both intra- and inter-personal benefits.

    The examples in the blog, and many of those described in The Gift of Fear involve social conditioning, particularly of women. Encouraged to believe the best of others at the same time as equating caring with catastrophizing when things are unclear, women have a hell of a time figuring out which rules to follow. Their own instincts aren’t even in the equation until they’ve had a few experiences with the fallacy of society’s rules. Like the writer of the blog. The more we buy into being nice people, the less in touch we are with our own realities, cognitive, emotional or whatever. Hasn’t it always been that way?

  • You present your case well sir. You were wrong about one thing though… I was thinking about my feet just moments before you suggested I wasn’t. Spooky!

    • My little red teddy, where’ve you been mate?

    • Allan MacDonald

      I, too, was thinking about my feet just before Tim suggested it, but might I venture this might be a little less spooky than it first appears? Our eyes “jump” along the line in movements known as “saccades”. Sometimes they jump just ahead of where we’re reading, before moving quickly back to the correct spot. Our “premonitions” are therefore the result of “anticipatory reading” (seeing the words before we reach them).

  • When we confuse fear with intuition, we are usually not steered in the right direction. Often…if we are afraid, we think that means we should not do something…that our gut is telling us not to do something. That’s not necessarily true. We need a better understanding of why we are afraid, and what we are afraid of, in order to tell whether the fear is wisdom that comes out of experience or an instinctual, intuitive knowing, or whether something in the past has scared the bejesi out of us and has covered over our natural wisdom because we got hurt and are instinctively protecting ourselves out of our primal brain rather than really being in touch with our gut!

  • i’m a huge believer in gut instinct (and meditation). the enteric (or gut-based) nervous system is consistently shown to be much more far-reaching and powerful than what we understand to lie in the brain. the difficulty, for me, lies in distinguishing between that ever so soft ‘gut’ voice, and the much louder ego, which loves fear, judgment, denial and delusion.

    i recently went against a gut instinct and took a trip that ended quite badly. i understand that following my gut would have saved me time, money and a big dose of heartbreak, but sometimes throwing oneself in harm’s way provides the best fertilizer to grow character, a great life, and maybe even material for a bestseller.

    love your gut, certainly. make everything that happens a gift – now you’re talking…

    pascale

    • I pretty much 100% agree with that too!

      BTW, an area I didn’t go into because scientifically speaking its very new, is the growing belief amongst some scientists that there is actually a completely separate thinking (and I use that term loosely) mechanism in the gut unconnected to the brain. How amazing would that be!

      • Allan MacDonald

        Hi Tim, a great post. There’s certainly capacity for some form of nervous action from our gut; our central nervous system has around a billion neurons (nerve cells) or 10 to the power of 10. Our gastrointestinal tract contains 10 to the power 9…so “gut instinct” might not be too far from the mark!

  • Pascale– I love your line “make everything that happens a gift.” So true. It’s really my motto for life. If things work out the way I want them to, great. If they don’t, great–because I can either learn from it or write about it (or both).

  • What a fascinating subject, Tim!

    I just recently finished reading Blink and just loved it. One of the most important points that stood out for me was Gladwell’s repeated point that not everyone is very good at rapid cognition. He tells of watching taped discussions between couples and trying to sense if they have a loving relationship or predicting a likely divorce on the horizon. At first, untrained at what to look for, he failed miserably. Only after practice, was he able to improve the likelihood of getting that gut feeling correct.

    The point is that some are better at recognizing the clues presented in those slices of time when the gut signals something not quite right. But the gut can’t predict a lottery number or who our infant boy will end up marrying in 25 years. The gut isn’t a crystal ball. It is insight, albeit instinctual or subconscious, based on clues that sometimes are not recognized consciously, that indicates a problem, a hint that something is odd or off key.

    And until we develop a track record of accurately recognizing the truths caught in those split moments, those initial jolts of subconscious recognition, I wouldn’t recommend selling the family farm to follow the gut!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Tim!

  • Debi

    I tend to use my brain way too much, but I’m learning a fun trick to help me trust my gut. When I’m caught between 2 options, I flip a coin. Then I ask myself if I like that result. If I don’t like what the coin chooses, I pick the other.

    • LMAO, now that’s what I call stacking the deck in your own favor!

    • Allan MacDonald

      I do this too Debi, and it’s a great way to make your feelings on a specific topic clear to yourself. Flip a coin & feel disappointed with the outcome & you then know its not what you want to do. Especially handy for those situations where “want” & “should” have become entangled to the point where differentiation is nigh on impossible. Interestingly, it seems the late, great (if slightly theoretically flawed) Sigmund Freud was a proponent of this method!

  • I always say following your intuition is your best bet. And intuition is when your heart (or gut) and mind (or careful analysis) are in sync. Whenever my heart tells me one thing and my mind another, I usually meditate on that until I can figure out how to bring the two in sync on whatever issue it is. Sometimes it’s a choice I’m avoiding, but in the end, I am am happier with my choices when I take the time to find that sweet spot.

  • The way you describe gut instinct feels similar to intuition which I do believe we’ve lost touch with AND is incredibly valuable. Sometimes you know what you know without knowing how you know it! And sometimes you’ve logged your 10,000 hours and in turn, you simply intuit the cause of the fire!

    Our brains and bodies connect the dots faster than we think they do, sending us messages all the time. We’re just trained from a young age NOT to listen to the signals. I believe Indigenous people at one time knew how to “listen” to the earth in a similar way, and yet we are now sadly losing all that incredible knowledge as the elders take their oral tradition to their graves.

    We live in an increasingly left brained world (Exhibit A: public school; Exhibit B: modern business trying to quantify the hell out of everything). What will help us cope is using less “sensible” means for solving problems. Tapping our “gut” is going to part of that … or rather, returning to ourselves. Okay, ‘nuther conversation perhaps.

    ps: I think you meant to say “left brained academics.” ;-)

    Cheers,
    Karri

    • Yeh, you know I’m not sure what the difference is between gut instinct and intuition and in the draft post I used the two interchangeably.

      The reason I took intuition out of because I didn’t want to cross over into the murky waters of premonitions, mind reading etc.

      PS You’re right I did.

  • Hi Tim,
    I think gut instinct is important especially as we get older. We have digested much in our life and lots of times our hunches turn out to be right based on past experiences that are stored somewhere deep in our brain. Navy seals have to use their gut instinct because in lots of situations they are in, they don’t have a lot of time to analyze a situation.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  • When technology was still in its early stages, hunters used their subconscious or their ‘gut’ to find animals at night. Now there’s night vision.

    We are losing touch with our divine abilities to discern and now, as you said, we use rationale. I guess the key is observation. The more we observe our environments and ourselves, the more superhuman we would appear to be.

    • Agreed Lanre. I used to be brilliant at getting used to new cities and finding my way around when I was in sales. Then I got a GPS and within weeks was clueless without it!

  • Matias

    Hello, Tim. I didn’t know where else to ask this, but what do you think of the book “The Genie Within” by Harry W. Carpenter? That is IF you know about it or what it’s about. I recently purchased your “Aligning…” book and I’m also reading a lot about the subconscious. Thanks a lot! And sorry if this is the wrong place to ask this. Cheers!

  • Matias

    Hey, Tim. I’m interested in hearing what you think about it. I think many passages sound too esoteric/mystical and I do not particularly like subjects that do not accept scientific inquiry, but it does sound interesting. Thanks.

  • Matias

    Yes, I read it. And I’m trying the different techniques to make both conscious and unconscious minds work in unison, or at least lessen the constant fight between them. It’s only that I probably have a biased view on certain aspects of the book, and I wanted to know what other people thought about it. In this case, you. Thanks a lot! Have a nice day.

  • Anders Arestad

    This can also work through dreams as they are the mirror of our sub-concious. But it is difficult to know whether a dream or regular “hunches” is intuitions reflecting for example a real danger or just a fear of a danger. A month ago I dreamt that my father died: a few days later I found out that he had landed in the hospital with complications which he ended up dying froma few weeks later I have dremt that he has died a few times many years ago, but he didn’t die then, so I guess then the dreams were just based on fear of him dying. I also dreamt a few weeks ago that I fell over on my motorcyckle wile standing still in a driveway and damaged the side of my bike but not myself. A week later I was exhausted from moving and was going to move my motorcycle out of the garage on to the street before getting redy to ride over to some friends house. After getting on my bike I had noticed a car blocking the one garage door so I decided to get off the bike to go and open the second garagedoor. However I was so tired that I forgot that my sidestand was still up, so when I was half way off, the 600Lbs bike fell over and threw me across the floor as well. Just as I had dreamt, I didn’t get hurt but the bike got damaged. I decided to go amd take a nap before getting back on the bike to head over to my friends house, but while resting I had visions of my own face being blodied. I decided not to go to my friends house at all that evening, so I will never know if I was foreseeing or just fearing that I later would have an incident which would have blodied my face as in my latest vision.

  • I regularly used to overule my gut instinct until I read your explanation in HRBRAH. Before that, when I got a feeling to avoid a certain person almost the moment I met them I would still allow myself to develop a relationship with them because I like to be friendly and inclusive. Eventually it would end badly and I’d wonder why.

    Now I know, because you told me in the book, that that creepy feeling I got was based on sensory information I was picking up – from their body language, the way they spoke, carried themselves, interacted with other people. Once I understood that, it changed my view of gut instinct being a magical, mystical thing (which I, as an analytical person, distrusted) to a sound, scientific principle based probably on millions of years of evolution.

    Literally, that piece of information changed a large part of my life and gave me far greater confidence in my own abilities and judgments. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Anders Arestad

    Well Tim, weather we call it premonition, gut feeling or hunch etc. I also have a hard tme imagining it being based on some kind of spiritual level. I think it is more that we are very attuned to everything and everyone around us on a. subconcious level even if we often think we are clueless conciously.

  • Allan MacDonald

    Hi Tim,

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas & New Year.

    Many thanks for a great article, & one which supports my experience. As a physician, I’moften struck by intuitions when I’m taking a history or examining a patient. While it would be quite wrong to base my practice solely on these intuitions, I’ve learned to pay attention to them, as often something has struck a chord in subconscious. As a result, I’ve improved as a diagnostician. I let my intuitions guide where I look first for supporting information, whilst keeping an open mind to other possibilities. The times whee my intuition was wrong get added to my database of knowledge & experience, improving my intuition for the next time.

    Al

    PS: might I commend you on your ‘textbook’ use of the phrase “fannying about “? Excellent work for a bawbag such as yourself ;-)

    All the best in 2012!

    • A sick wife and a sick dog meant it wasn’t totally stellar mate, but thanks nonetheless!

      Thanks for the info regarding the neurons, that’s officially a shit load of neurons and they must be doing something ;-)

  • Rush

    For the first time, the whole gut feeling makes complete sense to me. I worked at a bank many years ago and felt very uncomfortable when an old man wanted to draw money. I felt there was something wrong but couldn’t find any logical reason for it. In CCTV footage, 2 criminals were waiting with a gun in the bank whilst they forced him to commit identity fraud…my subcon mind must have picked up on something. Now I am again in the same position where I have a strong feeling that a relationship is not right despite no obvious evidence in support, just a strong feeling…yet its difficult to end a relationship on grounds of just a feeling.