• Doug Moore

7 questions for deciding whether to trust your gut

Intuition — our gut feeling about how to act in a given situation — is one of the human brain's most powerful features. However, our intuitions can also lead us astray in many circumstances, and it's tough to know whether they're accurate in the moment. Today we'll be discussing 7 basic ground rules for when to trust your intuitions and when to take them with a grain of salt.

This question is important to consider because overconfidence in your intuitions can lead to disaster. One particularly dramatic example comes from the world of aviation. When pilots fly in low-visibility environments, confusion in the inner ear can create a strong intuitive sense that their plane is pointed upwards when it's really it's really flying level. This intuition, called the head-up illusion, often causes crashes by leading pilots to pitch their planes downwards when they shouldn't. Richard Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, died in a plane crash that the head-up illusion likely played a role in.

But troublesome, misleading intuitions can strike in more quotidian circumstances as well. Job interviews, for instance, rely heavily on the interviewer's intuition — the premise is that you can get a sense of what a person will be like to work with by spending some face time with them. However, our interpersonal intuitions upon meeting a new person more accurately reflect whether we'll like that individual than whether he or she'll make a good employee. As a result, unstructured job interviews make poor predictors of job performance. In fact, a 1998 systematic review of employee-selection tactics found that such interviews can predict just 14% of employee performance. By contrast, more effective techniques like work-sample tests are almost twice as predictive.

None of this is to say that intuitions are useless or that they should be ignored in all situations. In fact, they're vital to many basic activities that we perform daily without thinking about them, such as catching thrown objects or reading people's faces and tones of voice. Still, there's substantial reason to believe that intuitions should be treated with caution — and furthermore, that it's possible to strengthen your intuitions over time, and to get a sense of which activities you know enough about to safely rely on instinct. This collaborative paper on the reliability of professional intuitions by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein is a good place to start examining the clinical evidence for this idea, and some of the conclusions below are based on their work.

And with that, here's a 7-question checklist for trusting your intuitions in any given situation. Ask yourself these whenever your gut tries to tell you what to do:

Question #1: Do you have a lot of experience with the activity in question, or with similar activities?

If you've never participated in an activity before, or have engaged in it rarely, your intuitions for that activity probably won't be very accurate. For instance, if you've never played ping pong before, your instincts for how to hit the ball will probably lead you to whiff a lot. If you grew up playing ping pong, though, you probably won't have to think about how to return a serve in order to do it successfully. Performing a similar activity can help, too — tennis and squash have some substantial differences, for instance, but an experienced tennis player will probably adjust to playing squash a lot more quickly than someone who's never spent much time with either sport. Be wary of any intuitions you feel when you're in unfamiliar territory.

Question #2: How complex is the activity?

If what you're doing is fairly simple, you'll develop accurate and reliable intuitions for how to do it after comparatively little experience. For example, suppose you're playing Monopoly — it's a simple game, and if you've played it a dozen or so times, you'll probably have a good automatic understanding of how it works and what to do on a given turn. However, if it's highly complicated, it could take a great deal of experience and learning before your gut decisions can be trusted. Consider chess for a contrast. It's an unbelievably complicated game, and it takes years of study to develop the ability to accurately read the board.

Question #3: How rapidly do you feel the consequences of your choices?

In order to develop reliable intuitions, you need to learn by doing, and that means you need feedback — information about whether the choices you've made while performing that activity in the past were wise. Some activities provide nearly instantaneous feedback. For instance, if you're learning to box and you leave your guard down during a match, your face is likely to receive some clear-cut feedback that you've messed up. This kind of quick feedback helps build good intuitions rapidly, but not all pursuits involve such helpful mechanisms. Long-term investing, for instance, sits at the other end of the spectrum. A foolish investment decision might takes years to play out — and you might make further mistakes before you ever have a chance to learn from your first one.

Question #4: How reliable is the feedback from your decisions?

Inaccurate or incomplete feedback on the quality of your past decisions can also undermine your intuitions. Consider the game of poker. It's easy to play a technically perfect hand of poker and still lose, simply by dint of bad luck. At the same time, you can make truly awful tactical decisions while playing poker and still win, again thanks to luck. In such situations, it's hard to tell whether your intuitions have helped or hurt you — and that means they don't improve as rapidly through experience. Be wary of trusting your intuitions in situations where the feedback on your choices is noisy or ambiguous.

Question #5: How fundamentally unpredictable is the activity?

Some situations are just naturally hard to predict given the information available, and therefore subject to messing with your intuitions. One good example of this dynamic is predicting the weather – your intuitions can capture some very basic trends, such as the notion that a day of nonstop rain is more likely to be followed by another rainy day, but weather is too chaotic for even highly detailed scientific models to forecast with high certainty. Another, higher-stakes example of such a situation is the stock market; it's such a large and complex system that even the world's most knowledgeable experts can't reliably predict the movements of individual companies with even 80% accuracy. These unpredictable realms are especially tricky and treacherous territory for intuitions.

Question #6: Would this intuition have helped our prehistoric ancestors survive?

This question sounds a little strange, but many of our strongest intuitions evolved to help us survive in the wilderness thousands upon thousands of years ago. You still experience these intuitions daily, no matter how comfortable and modern your life is — think of the way you react automatically when an object starts to move in your peripheral vision, when you hear a sudden loud nose, or when you hear an angry tone of voice coming from someone you can't see. Intuitively reacting to stimuli like these in order to determine whether they present real danger clearly offered a survival advantage to our ancestors. These responses can certainly misfire; not all angry people behind you are real threats, not all movements in your peripheral vision are predators. But these intuitions exist for very good reason, and we shouldn't dismiss them immediately.

Question #7: How quickly do you need to act?

If you have just a second or two to respond in a situation, you have no choice but to rely on your intuition — it's the only decision-making process that's fast enough to work in that time frame. Your conscious, deliberative mind can't process choices that quickly, so intuition is really your only bet. For instance, if you're driving a car and you see a child-sized blur rush into your path, your only good option is acting on the intuition that you might be about to hit a child and brake as quickly as possible (while avoiding other cars).

So when you're deciding whether to trust your gut, ask these 7 questions:

  • Do you have a lot of experience with the activity in question, or similar activities?

  • How complex is the activity?

  • How rapidly do you feel the consequences of your choices?

  • How reliable is the feedback from your decisions?

  • How fundamentally unpredictable is the activity?

  • Would this intuition have helped our prehistoric ancestors survive?

  • How quickly do you need to act?

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