Making decisions can be hard — so hard, in fact, that there’s even a website that aims to take the angst out of choosing between multiple options. Every day we’re faced with at least two divergent roads, whether it’s something as mundane as whole wheat versus white bread or as seemingly life-altering as which grad school to attend.
In these situations, I often turn to friends and family for help. But instead of a straightforward answer, I usually hear something along the lines of “Follow your heart” or “What does your gut tell you?” Frustrated, I decided to do some digging to find out whether “intuition” actually exists and whether it’s really a good way to make decisions. Turns out there’s a huge amount of research on the topic, and the subject is so controversial that researchers can’t even agree on what “intuition” means. But we’ve sifted through the debates to bring you the latest on when and whether to trust your gut.
Going With the Gut — Why It Matters
Most of the studies I came across differentiate between intuitive and more analytical approaches to decision-makingSalience driven value integration explains decision biases and preference reversal. Tsetsos, K., Chater, N., Usher, M. Department of Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain Sciences, University College London, London, United Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2012 Jun 12;109(24):9659-64.. While an analytical decision is generally reached after extensive reflection, the intuitive decision is the one we come up with instantly, without examining the issue in-depth. But that’s not to say intuition is the same as choosing at random. Some scientists think intuition is a series of cognitive processes that happen so quickly we don’t even realize we’re thinking at all. According to this theory, our brain takes in all the details about the present situation, compares it to similar circumstances in the past, and then uses all that information to make a decisionIntuition: a fundamental bridging concept in the behavioral sciences. Hodgkinson, G.P., Langan-Fox, J., Sadler-Smith, E. University of Leeds, UK. British Journal of Psychology 2008 Feb;99(Pt 1):1-27.. So a gut feeling might manifest as a quick heartbeat or a stomachache instead of a conscious thought (giving the phrase “trust your gut” a much more literal meaning)Listening to your heart. How interoception shapes emotion experience and intuitive decision making. Dunn, B.D., Galton, H.C., Morgan, R., et al. Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, United Kingdom. Psychological Science 2010 Dec;21(12):1835-44..
Researchers have looked at the role of intuition in a range of situations, from playing chess to making a medical diagnosis. One study found that people make better decisions about potential purchases, such as cars and apartments, when mildly distracted, as opposed to when they think carefully about different optionsThe Impact of the Mode of Thought in Complex Decisions: Intuitive Decisions Are Better. Usher, M., Russo, Z., Weyers, M., et al. Department of Psychology, Tel-Aviv University Tel-Aviv, Israel. Frontiers in Psychology 2011;2:37.. There’s even some evidence that gut feelings can be just as accurate as the most high-tech MRI: Clinicians who trust their intuition that a child is seriously ill — even when medical tests suggest otherwise — are usually rightClinicians’ gut feeling about serious infections in children: observational study. Van den Bruel, A., Thompson, M., Buntinx, F., et al. Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Oxford, UK. BMJ 2012 Sep 25;345:e6144..
Intuition may be an especially valuable tool when we’re familiar with the subject at hand. For example, people’s snap judgments about basketball shots are more likely to be accurate if they’ve spent some time on the court. Still, other research suggests there are certain situations when going with our gut may not lead to the best results.
More Than a Feeling? — The Answer/Debate
When it comes to more methodical activities, such as playing chess or deciding which stocks to invest in, deliberation may actually be a more effective decision-making strategy than intuition. In one recent study, researchers found that chess players typically take a few minutes to think about their decision — and end up choosing stronger moves than the one they were initially planning to selectThe role of intuition and deliberative thinking in experts’ superior tactical decision making. Moxley, J.H., Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., et al.Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA. Cognition 2012 Jul;124(1):72-8..
But the distinction between intuition and deliberation is certainly not a black-and-white matter. Experts caution that even if we don’t spend time verbalizing our feelings or making a list of pros and cons, this doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking carefully or applying lessons learned from past experience to the present situationIntuitive and deliberate judgments are based on common principles. Kruglanski, A.W., Gigerenzer, G. Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA. Psychological Review 2011 Jan;118(1):97-109.. So, for example, if someone visits an apartment and decides immediately to buy it, it’s unclear whether they have made an intuitive decision or if they have made a very fast deliberative decision based on a few relevant pieces of data, like the price and the neighborhood.
Stuck in the Middle — The Takeaway
It seems the question is less whether our gut feelings are categorically “right” or “wrong,” but rather how to take all our thoughts and emotions into account when making important decisions. In the case of medical professionals, researchers advise doctors not to automatically heed their gut feelings, but to consult another doctor for a second opinion and do some further investigationClinicians’ gut feeling about serious infections in children: observational study. Van den Bruel, A., Thompson, M., Buntinx, F., et al. Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Oxford, UK. BMJ 2012 Sep 25;345:e6144.. Other scientists advise people to literally “listen to their heart” — in other words, to pay attention to physiological symptoms, such as a quick-beating heart, as a sign that something may be wrongListening to your heart. How interoception shapes emotion experience and intuitive decision making. Dunn, B.D., Galton, H.C., Morgan, R., et al. Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, United Kingdom. Psychological Science 2010 Dec;21(12):1835-44..
Regardless of how we come to a decision, experts tend to agree that it’s important to reflect on a choice once it’s made. This navel-gazing allows us to see how we could have tackled the situation differently by taking note of our initial feelings or pausing to reconsider them. We may not be able to make the right choice in every circumstance, but the good news is we can learn from these experiences and apply them to making better decisions in the future.
Special thanks to Justin Lavner, Jerad Moxley, and Dr. K. Anders Ericsson for their contributions to this piece.
How do you make difficult decisions? What does “trusting your gut” mean to you? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.