MIND
September 17, 2018

Trust Your Gut? Not So Fast

Going with your gut instinct when making a choice has a certain appeal. But it can also lead to a false sense of confidence.

When it comes to making decisions, “go with your gut” is common advice. There’s definitely something to this — people often feel better and more confident about their gut-level decisions. But there are also potential drawbacks to sticking too closely to our instincts, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Yale University had participants make choices about different items, including DVD players, mugs, apartments or restaurants. Some were told to make the decision based on a gut feeling; and others were told to use logic and reasoning. People who’d made gut decisions were more likely to stand behind their decisions and more likely to say it reflected their true selves.

Trusting too much in gut feelings can make it easier for people to hold fast to unexamined impulses at times when they should probably use a more thoughtful, fact-based approach.

When asked to share their choices about restaurants with friends, people who’d made intuitive gut decisions shared their decisions with more people, which may indicate that they felt surer about their choices, something to keep in mind the next time you read restaurant reviews on social media. “Focusing on feelings as opposed to logic in the decision-making process led participants to hold more certain attitudes toward and advocate more strongly for their choices,” said study author, Sam Maglio, in a statement.

“In making decisions, people must decide not only what to choose, but how to choose it,” Maglio added. “Our research suggests that individuals focusing on their feelings in decision-making do indeed come to see their chosen options as more consistent with what is essential, true and unwavering about themselves.”

The researchers were surprised at — and worried about — how open to relying on gut feelings the participants were overall, especially since we’re taught to use logic over for a shrewder decision. Trusting too much in gut feelings can make it easier for people to hold fast to unexamined impulses at times when they should probably use a more thoughtful, fact-based approach.

Digging in our heels can be a good thing when it comes to getting on a bike every day, explains Maglio, “there's little downside and a lot of benefit. But dug-in heels give way to stubbornness and isolationism in the blink of an eye. When our political attitudes are made intuitively and make us certain that we're right, we shut ourselves off from the possibility that we might be even a little bit wrong. For this reason, perhaps a bit of the openness facilitated by deliberation isn't a bad thing after all.”

It's nice to feel confident in our decisions, but the trick is not to come to them too quickly, particularly if they involve serious issues or substantial purchases. You can feel as confident in a well-researched choice as in one made on instinct. In fact, you are likely to feel more confident in a decision in which you can point to the information you considered and why you chose the way you did.

The study is published in the journal Emotion.

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