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.

Image:  Smoking Intuition,  Courtesy of Dania J