Rationalising gut feel

The theory goes that some decisions are made only after careful consideration, while others are on the basis of gut feelings. Generally speaking, the longer we have to decide, the more we are going to at least weigh the options – based on assessing pros and cons (as Benjamin Franklin advised his nephew on how to choose between two potential wives more than 200 years ago). If there is little or no time available, we usually rely on experience, instinct and/or training. Look at pilots, soldiers, firefighters, referees, triage nurses and so on. 

So far, so true. Two books, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, are good for taking us through the ins and outs of short order decision making. I personally find the Gigerenzer book more useful, because it explains how our instincts work – and makes us feel better about trusting them, eg: 

  • It is the Recognition Heuristic that explains brand loyalty, even in the face of a cheaper own label
  • I love the Beneficial Degree of Ignorance, which enables intelligent quiz show contestants to work out the right answer from how a question is put, even when it is out of their knowledge comfort zone
  • I find Unconscious Intelligence a really good way of explaining how we often manage to use rules of thumb to solve problems and make decisions as accurately and often quicker and better than we can using logic and method

 Gigerenzer uses another phrase that rings true for me: the Evolved Brain. Most of us are so conditioned by our education, that we want to make learning a totally logical and linear process – with a predictable ratio linking inputs and outputs. In Gut Feelings we read about numerous examples of the brain working out things for itself: 

  • The intuition of detectives (which also I suspect extends to other ‘outwitters’ like referees, umpires, teachers, suspicious partners)
  • The determination of pioneering scientists
  • Love matches (and Gigerenzer tells us sternly that intuition is as much a male skill as a female one – despite the urban myth!)
  • Even an instinctive moral code

 We work out that a gut feel decision can turn out to be just as right and just as successful as one painstakingly arrived at. Once we have crossed that credibility barrier, we can cheerfully embrace instinct and intuition and accept that they are useful (and indeed reliable) tools in our toolkit. 

In this way we rationalise gut feel and give it the same respect as logical process and thinking. Neither method of making decisions is infallible. Equally it would be wrong to regard logic and rationality as the obvious route for men as opposed to women, or when you have more time. 

The realisation that gut feelings and Benjamin Franklin’s algebra both have their place, and are complementary skills, makes it a lot easier to get through life!