The Power of Intuition: Going with the Gut?

How many times have you “gone with the gut” when you had to make a decision?  Literally, I hear someone refer to the “mighty” gut at least three times a week when working with organizations.  For most, it is revered as a deep, yet mysterious resource that helps resolve complex decisions in an almost magical way.  So, what is this mysterious “gut” that we all possess and regularly defer to?

The gut is for most of us a few feet north of our stomach and resides in the complexities of the human brain. We refer to it as intuition.   In the workplace, we use our gut to pick who to hire, assess performance, close a deal, or promote an employee.  Personally, we employ gut power to determine who we trust, date and marry, be friends with, and spend our time with on a regular basis.  It is that unquantifiable voice that protects our best interest when we think that reason is not enough.

The business literature has taken both sides of the issue.  Malcolm Gladwell in Blink validated the success of the gut while authors like Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton countered with Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense.  Scientific research has found mixed results as well.  A key difference in the two camps relates to the type of decisions being analyzed and how success is defined.  Most of the literature supportive to gut-based decision making involves relatively simple and even repetitive processes.  Conversely, the rational side utilizes more stringent processes and pertains to more complex and periodic decisions.  What both allude to is that we have multiple decision making processes and the appropriate one is dependent on various factors.

From a young age, we are taught the tools of rationally and empirically analyzing a situation to make the best decision.  We learn a process of looking at the options, weighting the outcomes and costs, and selecting the best option.  However, since birth, our brain starts to catalog experiences and the associated outcomes.  This combination of actions and outcomes form patterns and the patterns become the basis of what our subconscious draws on to make gut decisions.   Mathias Pessiglione, a neuroscientist at the Centre for Neuroimaging Research in Paris summarizes it as “when you think that you are referring to your intuition, actually you just learn an association between subliminal signals in your context and the outcome of your actions.”  For most of us, these patterns are as unique as we are and closely mirror our own experiences.  Moreover, our brain is very efficient at conserving energy and will quickly resort to the simplest process to address a pressing need.

So, what do we really know about the effectiveness of the gut?

  • Quick, simple decisions work
  • Personal experience is a huge limitation
  • Multiple causality plays a role

Quick, Simple Decisions Work

When a simple, split second decision has to be made, the gut is a wonderful resource.  Rarely, when acting quickly do we have the luxury of contemplating the pros and cons of a decision.   If the pattern is relatively reliable due to simple causality and limited outcomes, the gut is a good solution.

Personal Experience is a Huge Limitation

Like personal trust issues or hiring decisions, we are very confined by our own experiences.   The type of experiences, who they are with, and the related outcomes all temper our experience.  Another critical weakness related to personal experience is that it is tempered by emotion.   A 2007 article in Psychology Today summarizes analysis conducted by Alexandre Linhares like this: “Emotion guides how we learn from experience… Understanding is filled with emotion. We don’t obtain knowledge of love, danger, or joy; we feel them in a meaningful way. “ (http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200704/gut-almighty) For example, if I assume that most employees that are late are dishonest about it  because I have been fooled before, that emotion goes into every decision about other late employees in the future.  The emotion of “colors” the experience and could even play a role in other types of interactions with employees.

Multiple Causality Plays Role

Most of us are rationally aware that many factors result in a successful outcome.  This limitation is significantly amplified when dealing with complex issues.  How many times have you heard an issue has a “lot of moving parts” which is a quaint way of saying it is fairly complex.  Complex decisions require more information and calculation.  When going with the gut, most of us cut off the data gathering process very quickly and make assumptions about the remainder of the necessary information.  Another big confounder that wreaks havoc on the gut’s success rate is that most of us want to believe something before we actually make a decision.

How can you get the most out of using your gut?

  • Ask yourself if this is something that I can rely on a quick and simple decision.
  • Make sure you stop and consider how you might be influenced in your decision.
  • Research shows that successful gut decisions take years of practice and positive and negative experiences.

As the Psychology Today article presents so well: the best improvisation comedian or jazz soloist practices for numerous years emulating others before reaching any type of spontaneous mastery.  Gut decision making is less something we are born to and more something we have to master with time and experience.

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