Is it rational to trust your gut feelings?

May 16, 2018 by Valerie Van Mulukom, The Conversation
Intuition happens as a result of fast processing in the brain. Credit: Valerie van Mulukom, Author provided

Imagine the director of a big company announcing an important decision and justifying it with it being based on a gut feeling. This would be met with disbelief – surely important decisions have to be thought over carefully, deliberately and rationally?

Indeed, relying on your intuition generally has a bad reputation, especially in the Western part of the world where analytic thinking has been steadily promoted over the past decades. Gradually, many have come to think that humans have progressed from relying on primitive, magical and religious thinking to analytic and scientific thinking. As a result, they view emotions and intuition as fallible, even whimsical, tools.

However, this attitude is based on a myth of cognitive progress. Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties. They are appraisals of what you have just experienced or thought of – in this sense, they are also a form of information processing.

Intuition or gut feelings are also the result of a lot of processing that happens in the brain. Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next. This is described in what scientists call the "predictive processing framework".

This ensures that the brain is always as prepared to deal with the current situation as optimally as possible. When a mismatch occurs (something that wasn't predicted), your brain updates its cognitive models.

This matching between prior models (based on past experience) and current experience happens automatically and subconsciously. Intuitions occur when your brain has made a significant match or mismatch (between the cognitive model and current experience), but this has not yet reached your conscious awareness.

For example, you may be driving on a country road in the dark listening to some music, when suddenly you have an intuition to drive more to one side of the lane. As you continue driving, you notice that you have only just missed a massive pothole that could have significantly damaged your car. You are glad you relied on your gut feeling even if you don't know where it came from. In reality, the car in the far distance in front of you made a similar small swerve (since they are locals and know the road), and you picked up on this without consciously registering it.

When you have a lot of experience in a certain area, the brain has more information to match the current experience against. This makes your intuitions more reliable. This means that, as with creativity, your intuition can actually improve with experience.

Biased understanding

In the psychological literature, intuition is often explained as one of two general modes of thinking, along with analytic reasoning. Intuitive thinking is described as automatic, fast, and subconscious. Analytic thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, conscious and deliberate.

Many take the division between analytic and intuitive thinking to mean that the two types of processing (or "thinking styles") are opposites, working in a see-saw manner. However, a recent meta-analysis – an investigation where the impact of a group of studies is measured – has shown that analytic and intuitive thinking are typically not correlated and could happen at the same time.

So while it is true that one style of thinking likely feels dominant over the other in any situation – in particular analytic thinking – the subconscious nature of intuitive thinking makes it hard to determine exactly when it occurs, since so much happens under the bonnet of our awareness.

Indeed, the two thinking styles are in fact complementary and can work in concert – we regularly employ them together. Even groundbreaking scientific research may start with intuitive knowledge that enables scientists to formulate innovative ideas and hypotheses, which later can be validated through rigorous testing and analysis.

What's more, while intuition is seen as sloppy and inaccurate, analytic thinking can be detrimental as well. Studies have shown that overthinking can seriously hinder our decision-making process.

In other cases, analytic thinking may simply consist of post-hoc justifications or rationalisations of decisions based on intuitive thinking. This occurs for example when we have to explain our decisions in moral dilemmas. This effect has let some people refer to analytic thinking as the "press secretary" or "inner lawyer" of intuition. Oftentimes we don't know why we make decisions, but we still want to have reasons for our decisions.

Trusting instincts

So should we just rely on our intuition, given that it aids our decision-making? It's complicated. Because intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic and fast processing, it also falls prey to misguidances, such as cognitive biases. These are systematic errors in thinking, that can automatically occur. Despite this, familiarising yourself with common cognitive biases can help you spot them in future occasions: there are good tips about how to do that here and here.

Similarly, since fast processing is ancient, it can sometimes be a little out of date. Consider for example a plate of donuts. While you may be attracted to eat them all, it is unlikely that you need this large an amount of sugars and fats. However, in the hunter-gatherers' time, stocking up on energy would have been a wise instinct.

Thus, for every situation that involves a decision based on your assessment, consider whether your intuition has correctly assessed the situation. Is it an evolutionary old or new situation? Does it involve cognitive biases? Do you have experience or expertise in this type of situation? If it is evolutionary old, involves a cognitive bias, and you don't have expertise in it, then rely on analytic thinking. If not, feel free to trust your intuitive thinking.

It is time to stop the witch hunt on , and see it for what it is: a fast, automatic, subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analysing can't. We need to accept that intuitive and should occur together, and be weighed up against each other in difficult -making situations.

Explore further: People who rely on intuition judge situations more harshly, study finds

Related Stories

People who rely on intuition judge situations more harshly, study finds

November 2, 2017
In psychology, intuition, or "gut instinct," is defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for reasoning. A recent University of Missouri study determined that people who strongly trust their ...

Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, research shows

April 26, 2012
A new University of British Columbia study finds that analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.

Explainer: What is intuition?

May 3, 2013
The word intuition is derived from the Latin intueor – to see; intuition is thus often invoked to explain how the mind can "see" answers to problems or decisions in the absence of explicit reasoning – a "gut reaction".

Intuitive thinking may influence belief in God

September 20, 2011
Intuition may lead people toward a belief in the divine and help explain why some people have more faith in God than others, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Recommended for you

Aggression neurons identified

May 25, 2018
High activity in a relatively poorly studied group of brain cells can be linked to aggressive behaviour in mice, a new study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden shows. Using optogenetic techniques, the researchers were able ...

The brain's frontal lobe could be involved in chronic pain, according to research

May 25, 2018
A University of Toronto scientist has discovered the brain's frontal lobe is involved in pain transmission to the spine. If his findings in animals bear out in people, the discovery could lead to a new class of non-addictive ...

Doctors fail to flag concussion patients for critical follow-up

May 25, 2018
As evidence builds of more long-term effects linked to concussion, a nationwide study led by scientists at UCSF and the University of Southern California has found that more than half of the patients seen at top-level trauma ...

Bursts of brain activity linked to memory reactivation

May 24, 2018
Leading theories propose that sleep presents an opportune time for important, new memories to become stabilized. And it's long been known which brain waves are produced during sleep. But in a new study, researchers set out ...

Study suggests brainwave link between disparate disorders

May 24, 2018
A brainwave abnormality could be a common link between Parkinson's disease, neuropathic pain, tinnitus and depression—a link that authors of a new study suggest could lead to treatment for all four conditions.

Researchers define molecular basis to explain link between a pregnant mother's nutrition and infant growth

May 24, 2018
For years, pregnant mothers have questioned their nutritional habits: "Will eating more cause my baby to be overweight?" Or, "I'm eating for two, so it won't hurt to have an extra serving, right?"

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

VOR_
not rated yet May 16, 2018
whata buncha horseshit poor word choices. "analytic thinking can be detrimental as well. Studies have shown that overthinking can seriously hinder our decision-making process.
In other cases, analytic thinking may simply consist of post-hoc justifications or rationalisations of decisions based on intuitive thinking."n ...yeah that's not analytical thinking, that's just think thinking poorly slower. There's is no such thing really as 'overthinking'. It's a term with no good meaning or usages. It's trying to describe 'thinking long but not well'..but it's a fuking failure at expressing that.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.