Your Gut Instinct is Usually Wrong

Here’s what to do about it.

My parents registered me for a test preparation class when I was a teenager. Overall, I was a good student; but, during exams, I would often become hyper-focused on questions that I couldn’t figure out, so much so that I would spend disproportionate amounts of time trying to decipher an answer. While grit is a great life skill to have, it turns out it’s a terrible timed test-taking trait. While focusing your energy on one question, you run out of time to answer the rest.

Test preparation courses are all eerily similar in my experience. Instructors focus on proper study techniques, provide tips on staying calm during the exam, and provide guidance on what to do when you don’t know what to do. ‘Study methodically and you’ll do fine’ is usually the general guidance, as if those words will somehow provide grandiose inspiration. Platitudes such as this provide little guidance in the journey to personal success.

‘When in doubt, trust your gut. It’s usually right.’ I distinctly remember this statement being the mantra of the course. Don’t know the answer? Go with your gut instinct. Select that answer and move on. Don’t question it. Don’t go back and rethink it. If you follow this approach, you’ll be successful.

As a teenager, this advice seemed oddly counterintuitive. It was completely misaligned with a core concept that had become so ingrained in my approach to problem-solving, harnessed through years of formal education: accuracy. Now, there was an instructor advising me to toss that concept in favor of educated guessing and gut instinct. If gut instinct is usually right, why would anyone memorize formulas and statistics, or learn the details of the Fibonacci sequence? It almost seemed too easy an approach to exam success. It turns out, it was.

By embracing this new approach to test tasking, my grades didn’t improve in the slightest. It turns out, by going with my gut, I was still answering the same number of questions incorrectly; I was just answering them faster. In academia, speed doesn’t count for much if you can’t come up with the right answer. It turns out ‘trust your gut’ wasn’t great advice in my teenage years. As I’ve come to learn in business and in life, this advice was pretty much useless. Your gut instinct is usually wrong.

Gut Instinct versus Systematic Analysis

A recent series of studies by Christine Ma-Kellams and Jennifer Lerner illustrates that people often incorrectly infer the emotions of others when employing gut instinct. Interestingly, the results are completely contrary to participant assumptions. In their first study, Ma-Kellams and Lerner found that study participants generally inferred that they accurately understood another individual’s emotions (empathic accuracy) when employing personal intuition. This assumption is unsurprising; there is no shortage of books, seminars, and events that encourage people to tap into their intuition to achieve remarkable success. Many assume, incorrectly, that learning to harness the power of human intuition is key to making good decisions; therefore, they extrapolate that good intuition is the key to personal success.

When actually put to the test, however, intuition often proves unreliable. Across gender, age, and education groups study participants were statistically inaccurate in interpreting the emotions of others when relying on their intuition. Whether participating in interviews or reading limited facial cues, those employing gut instincts to make decisions were often incorrect in their judgments.

Conversely, those who employed a systematic analysis of contextual cues, physical responses, and facial cues were significantly more accurate in determining emotional state than those employing intuition. Those that took the time to evaluate the available data made better decisions; their performance was superior to their peers. According to Ma-Kellams and Lerner, “engaging in systematic, as opposed to intuitive, thinking is associated with increased accuracy when reading the feelings of others.” Their findings blatantly challenge the instinctive approach that is so common to interpersonal interactions.

Why these Results Matter

Leaders deal with human emotion in almost every scenario. From interviewing candidates to conducting business negotiations, accurately reading emotions is key to successfully navigating one’s environment. It turns out, those who are employing gut instinct to understand their environmental terrain may be navigating blindly.

The results of Ma-Kellams and Lerner’s study illustrate that leaders should be more methodical in analyzing the emotions of others to more accurately read and respond to events. This approach flies in the face of convention. It also requires leaders to invest more time and effort in analytical activity; but, it can yield an edge for those willing to invest in more rigorous situational analysis. While your peers misread situation after situation, your systematic evaluation may provide insights that others will undoubtedly miss; these insights may be used to your advantage.

Leveraging Context

Historically, humans were required to trust their instincts to survive. When encountering another individual for the first time, one would be required to make momentary decisions to determine whether this individual presented a threat to one’s survival. These momentary decisions were based on instinct; there was little time to evaluate contextual cues or historical data to draw conclusions. Make the right decision and you may gain a new ally; make the wrong one and you may have a battle afoot. In situations pertaining to early survival, gut instinct was necessary. If you took the time to deeply analyze all available data, you may be attacked while trying to determine if this stranger’s scarf color appeared threatening.

Today, we rarely deal with situations where gut instinct is a valid life-saving problem-solving approach; our context has drastically changed. Environments are more complex; human thoughts and emotions are diverse and highly dependent upon environmental stimuli. So why then do we still advocate the employment of gut instinct approaches in such broad circumstances? Contextual information and cues provide a great deal of insight when reading a situation. Unless the situation is of life or death, isn’t it far more pragmatic to take the time to analyze contextual details to improve your chances of making a correct decision?

Preventing Bias

One of the more significant problems with gut instinct is the perpetuation of conscious or unconscious bias. Even when employed quickly, gut instinct or intuition isn’t random; it’s predicated on one or more heuristics and personal biases. These heuristics may be constructed over time, through experience. However, in some instances, these heuristics are more significantly influenced by personal and societal stereotypes. Employing your gut instinct may further the application of bias, which in turn may negatively impact marginalized members of your team, organization, industry, or community.

Systematic evaluation mitigates the conscious or unconscious application of bias when interacting with others or making decisions. While you may not have the time to deeply analyze every interaction you have, you should invest in those where decisions have an interpersonal or business impact. If you’re simply relying on your gut instinct to make decisions throughout the day, you may be creating more problems within your team than you’re solving, an approach which may prove catastrophic over time.

Avoiding Catastrophic Errors

Employing gut instincts in the decision-making process can have serious, or fatal, consequences in certain environmental conditions. Consider, for example, within our justice system. The justice system is one that must be based wholly upon systematic analysis and fact-based analysis. We would be outraged if a judge made decisions of guilt based on their intuition about the motivations of a defendant rather than on the facts of the case. Yet, even today, people are still convicted of crimes of which they are innocent. According to Katherine Ramsland, “nearly 78% of the 300+ exonerations involving The Innocence Project are directly associated to mistaken eyewitness identification.” Katherine points out that even investigators get it wrong from time-to-time, misreading cues from even the most violent criminals they interview. It turns out, gut instinct can yield catastrophic outcomes in even the most scientific of systems.

An exhaustive analysis of data is critical in avoiding the potential for catastrophic misreads of situations, motivations, and intent. As a leader, you can’t simply bypass analysis in favor of gut determination, regardless of your industry. If you do, you risk contributing to significant loss and negative outcomes for many, including yourself. If a decision is of any substance, it warrants the time and effort to derive a calculated conclusion based on the analysis of all available information. The greater the potential impact of the decision, the more effort one should invest in the analysis of all available data.

Overcoming Our Gut

Why do we trust our gut? Because it’s a necessary filter for the plethora of interactions and data that we encounter throughout the day. If we engage in a systematic evaluation of every circumstance we encounter, we would fail to function effectively in any fast-paced environment. For example, when selecting an ice-cream flavor for my dessert, I am not going to make a list, jot down the pros and cons of each flavor, and research the health benefits of vanilla over chocolate. If I invested that much effort in every decision I made, I would be unaccomplished at the end of each day (but would be very satisfied with my ice cream choice). We have time constraints as busy professionals; so, we rely on feelings, trusting our previous experience, biases, and intuitive responses to assist us in making decisions rapidly. However, at critical decision-making points, this is not only a misguided approach but has serious implications for our personal and professional success.

So what do we do when we can’t trust our gut? We invest more time and effort in gathering and analyzing data. We rely less on our instincts and more on conclusions supported by detailed interpretations and facts. While not easy, this approach is far more likely to yield success in business, and in life, than trusting our gut. Whether you’re writing a multiple choice exam or determining whether to hire a new employee, relying on your gut instinct won’t help you make the right decision; it’s more likely to help you make the wrong decision, faster.