When Can I Trust Gut Feelings?

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.27.16 PMGut feelings about potential threats and opportunities are not always correct, and neuroscientists debate the conditions under which the feelings precede the conscious awareness of the clues themselves. But our instinctual skills evolved to ensure our survival, and research findings suggest that in some people those skills are exquisitely sensitive. So although the many serious researchers who say thatgut feelings are not always correct do have a point, they may be missing the most important point: gut feelings have other functions that transcend the logic of reason, and to leverage their role fully we should not evaluate gut feelings on a narrow basis of whether they are right or wrong.

When we engage in solving a problem using logical skills, we follow certain rules or protocols based on past experience with a similar problem. The rules and protocols we follow are generally well defined and measurable. If we succeed in solving our problem, we typically attribute it to the efficacy of the protocols we followed. If we fail at solving our problem, we can look back and analyze the steps we took to find where our approach failed.

Conversely, when we engage in solving a problem using our instincts, we follow a path that is highly specific to our problem and ourselves at a particular moment in time. If someone asks us how we solved the problem, we may be able to recount what we did, but even a detailed recounting of what we did will not necessarily apply to a similar problem. And that’s fine, because instinctual problem solving isn’t necessarily about replication; it’s about dynamic adaptation to circumstances. The problem is that when we are successful, we (and others) may attribute our success simply to luck, even though calling on our instincts is a skill we can develop. So although we may never be able to measure the efficacy of instinct-based problem solving precisely, that doesn’t mean it is a random phenomenon. The difference between logic-based problem solving and instinct-based problem isn’t necessarily efficacy; the difference lies in our ability or inability to precisely identify cause and effect. And when we can’t identify cause and effect, we feel out of control or inefficient.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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