When struggling to make decisions, whether it's choosing an ice cream flavor or a spouse, a common piece of advice urges: Go with your gut.
But is the gut really all that wise? Where is it even getting its intel?
A gut feeling, also known as instinct or intuition, refers to those snap decisions you can't explain, the moments you have a sense something is right but you don't know why. It's the visceral inclination that steers you away
from a dark alley or toward an investment opportunity. It's how "you just know" that you have found the person you wish to marry — or not.
Whether such intuitions work as well, or better, than rational, deliberate reasoning in solving problems is a controversial topic among researchers.
Some say gut feelings are undervalued
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, for one, believes gut feelings don't get as much respect as they should.
In his book "Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious," Gigerenzer tells the story of a friend who struggled to choose between two women he was dating, so he invoked the advice
To Gigerenzer, director of the Max Plank Institute for Human Development in Berlin, that's an example of the unconscious outsmarting careful rationale. The problem with making big decisions based on complex calculations, he said, is that you can't know all of the variables in an uncertain world, and not all the information from your past is relevant to your future, so your judgment can get clouded with irrelevant noise.
Good instincts, Gigerenzer said, rely on rules of thumb, known as heuristics, wherein you focus on the most important information and ignore the rest.
"If you want to explain the past, you can do this with very complex rules," Gigerenzer said. "But if you want to predict the future, that is not always the case. Then, less is more."
Actually based on experiences
Underlying gut feelings are layers of previous experiences stored away in our brains, which we can access in a blink without conscious effort. That's how experienced baseball players know instinctively where to run to catch a fly ball or how chess masters can checkmate a novice in seconds, Gigerenzer said.
Sometimes we store information without realizing it, and it feeds our hunches.
When they were shown similar images later and asked to identify which they had seen before, the participants were more accurate at recognizing those they had seen while distracted by the spoken number — qualifying their answers with saying that they felt unsure and were "just guessing" — than those they had seen while concentrating on just the images. The results suggest participants were subconsciously summoning simple visual memories they didn't realize they had.
"When you think you don't know the answer, you might still have implicit knowledge," said lead researcher Ken Paller.
Gut instincts can come in handy under severe time pressure or in situations of acute danger, when our brains unconsciously draw on experiences and external cues to make fast decisions, according to a 2008 analysis in the British Journal of
They can lead you astray
But gut feelings aren't always smart or correct. They can reflect fear, nervousness or experiences that have little to do with the current situation, Gigerenzer said.
And there's danger in overestimating how much we can trust our minds, said Christopher Chabris, assistant professor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and co-author of "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us." The title of his book refers to a study in which people were instructed to watch a video of a basketball game and count the number of passes, and afterward they were asked if they had seen anything unusual. Half hadn't noticed the nine seconds during which a person in a gorilla suit stood in the middle of the court, thumping her chest.
For every success story about business people who ignored common sense and made a risky gut decision — Charles S. Howard buying the loser horse Seabiscuit and turning him into a champion,
"All of this underestimates the role of luck," Chabris said. "People don't realize how big randomness is."
Taking time for reflection often leads to better decisions, he said. In a 2003 study that analyzed the moves of chess grandmasters in regular versus rapid games, Chabris and colleagues found that those who had more time to think (an average of 3 minutes per move versus less than 1 minute) made 36 percent fewer mistakes.
In the end, Gigerenzer said, there are certain situations in which intuition is the best strategy, and others when it's better to undertake slower deliberation — "we need both," he said.
For people who have a hard time hearing their gut, often because they've learned to override it in favor of rational thinking or because they are "maximizers" who want to explore all of their options before making a decision, there are ways to strengthen the intuitive muscle. Try flipping a coin; if you're upset by the result, you have your instinctive answer, Gigerenzer said. Or stop weighing the merits of every item on the restaurant menu and invoke a rule of thumb that has saved indecisive souls everywhere.
"Ask the waiter what he would eat there," Gigerenzer said, "and just get that."
Gut feelings are believed to spring from a deeply embedded part of the brain called the insula, where bodily sensations are recast as social emotions such as guilt, pride or contempt, said Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist and author of the books "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain."
The insula, considered the neural center for empathy and self-awareness, is connected to the vagus nerve, which runs through the abdomen and regulates the functioning of various organs, including contraction of the stomach and intestines. That could be why we associate intuition with the gut, Brizendine said, though in other languages the terminology for instinct has nothing to do with bowels.
Giving some credence to the theory of women's intuition, the insula is slightly larger in women than in men and research has found women are slightly faster at tapping into it, Brizendine said. That's possibly because their brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to read the cues of nonverbal infants and know when they're hurting.