Is It Rational to Trust Your Gut Feelings?

Summary: Researchers report intuition is the result of information processing in the brain that results in prediction based on previous experience.

Source: The Conversation.

Imagine the director of a big company announcing an important decision and justifying it with it being based on a gut feeling. This would be met with disbelief – surely important decisions have to be thought over carefully, deliberately and rationally?

Indeed, relying on your intuition generally has a bad reputation, especially in the Western part of the world where analytic thinking has been steadily promoted over the past decades. Gradually, many have come to think that humans have progressed from relying on primitive, magical and religious thinking to analytic and scientific thinking. As a result, they view emotions and intuition as fallible, even whimsical, tools.

However, this attitude is based on a myth of cognitive progress. Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties. They are appraisals of what you have just experienced or thought of – in this sense, they are also a form of information processing.

Intuition or gut feelings are also the result of a lot of processing that happens in the brain. Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next. This is described in what scientists call the “predictive processing framework”.

This ensures that the brain is always as prepared to deal with the current situation as optimally as possible. When a mismatch occurs (something that wasn’t predicted), your brain updates its cognitive models.

This matching between prior models (based on past experience) and current experience happens automatically and subconsciously. Intuitions occur when your brain has made a significant match or mismatch (between the cognitive model and current experience), but this has not yet reached your conscious awareness.

For example, you may be driving on a country road in the dark listening to some music, when suddenly you have an intuition to drive more to one side of the lane. As you continue driving, you notice that you have only just missed a massive pothole that could have significantly damaged your car. You are glad you relied on your gut feeling even if you don’t know where it came from. In reality, the car in the far distance in front of you made a similar small swerve (since they are locals and know the road), and you picked up on this without consciously registering it.

When you have a lot of experience in a certain area, the brain has more information to match the current experience against. This makes your intuitions more reliable. This means that, as with creativity, your intuition can actually improve with experience.

Biased understanding

In the psychological literature, intuition is often explained as one of two general modes of thinking, along with analytic reasoning. Intuitive thinking is described as automatic, fast, and subconscious. Analytic thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, conscious and deliberate.

Many take the division between analytic and intuitive thinking to mean that the two types of processing (or “thinking styles”) are opposites, working in a see-saw manner. However, a recent meta-analysis – an investigation where the impact of a group of studies is measured – has shown that analytic and intuitive thinking are typically not correlated and could happen at the same time.

So while it is true that one style of thinking likely feels dominant over the other in any situation – in particular analytic thinking – the subconscious nature of intuitive thinking makes it hard to determine exactly when it occurs, since so much happens under the bonnet of our awareness.

Indeed, the two thinking styles are in fact complementary and can work in concert – we regularly employ them together. Even groundbreaking scientific research may start with intuitive knowledge that enables scientists to formulate innovative ideas and hypotheses, which later can be validated through rigorous testing and analysis.

What’s more, while intuition is seen as sloppy and inaccurate, analytic thinking can be detrimental as well. Studies have shown that overthinking can seriously hinder our decision-making process.

brain scans
Intuition happens as a result of fast processing in the brain. image is credited to Valerie van Mulukom.

In other cases, analytic thinking may simply consist of post-hoc justifications or rationalisations of decisions based on intuitive thinking. This occurs for example when we have to explain our decisions in moral dilemmas. This effect has let some people refer to analytic thinking as the “press secretary” or “inner lawyer” of intuition. Oftentimes we don’t know why we make decisions, but we still want to have reasons for our decisions.

Trusting instincts

So should we just rely on our intuition, given that it aids our decision-making? It’s complicated. Because intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic and fast processing, it also falls prey to misguidances, such as cognitive biases. These are systematic errors in thinking, that can automatically occur. Despite this, familiarising yourself with common cognitive biases can help you spot them in future occasions: there are good tips about how to do that here and here.

Similarly, since fast processing is ancient, it can sometimes be a little out of date. Consider for example a plate of donuts. While you may be attracted to eat them all, it is unlikely that you need this large an amount of sugars and fats. However, in the hunter-gatherers’ time, stocking up on energy would have been a wise instinct.

Thus, for every situation that involves a decision based on your assessment, consider whether your intuition has correctly assessed the situation. Is it an evolutionary old or new situation? Does it involve cognitive biases? Do you have experience or expertise in this type of situation? If it is evolutionary old, involves a cognitive bias, and you don’t have expertise in it, then rely on analytic thinking. If not, feel free to trust your intuitive thinking.

It is time to stop the witch hunt on intuition, and see it for what it is: a fast, automatic, subconscious processing style that can provide us with very useful information that deliberate analysing can’t. We need to accept that intuitive and analytic thinking should occur together, and be weighed up against each other in difficult decision-making situations.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: Valerie van Mulukom has worked on analytical and intuitive thinking research for projects funded by BIAL Foundation grants (62/06 and 380/14) awarded to Dr Miguel Farias (Coventry University).

Source: Valerie van Mulukom – The Conversation
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Valerie van Mulukom.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]The Conversation “Is It Rational to Trust Your Gut Feelings?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 May 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]The Conversation (2018, May 18). Is It Rational to Trust Your Gut Feelings?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]The Conversation “Is It Rational to Trust Your Gut Feelings?.” (accessed May 18, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. In my opinion,you should trust your guts only if you have considerable experience in that particulate domain in life, otherwise, think analytically or seek advice from more experienced individuals.

  2. The error is not that we have lesser capacity or knowledge but that we want to feel relieved, satisfied about result now. Once this satisfaction, this relief is seen as not tenable – one is on the fluid ground. Here any action is relaxed, conscious. As energy is freed from pre confirming what is going to happen.
    Can one see that every action is an experiment?
    Every moment, two possibilities exist. This is the totality. Something ‘you want may happen. It may not happen’. One begins to fight away, cover up, undo, adjust with the possibility of ‘may not happen’. Your energy is dissipated in fighting away this possibility.
    Can you see the futility of fighting away this possibility arising in your mind? Now your will, what you want becomes clear. Any action (or no action) is relaxed, conscious. You are on the magical ground.

  3. Intuition is a finer instinct that one uses when one is profoundly connected to one’s own self.You can listen to your gut which is a finer way of information processing only when you are in solitude.So you can well imagine how and under what circumstances should one listen to the gut instinct.The gut or intution is the very first conscious voice that comes from within.It is generated from within.

  4. Yes it is rational to trust your gut feeling bc I had a feeling about this guy as soon as we sit on the couch besides each other I just felt it in my gut that getting reaquanted with him wasn’t going to work and it didn’t I wish I had of followed my gut feeling .

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