Should you trust your gut instincts?

More than a feeling, gut instinct – otherwise known as intuition – refers to the idea that people can make successful decisions without systematic thought.

In times of rapid and unprecedented change, could gut instinct prove as useful as data and analytics?

At a glance

  • Gut instinct draws on past experiences and environmental cues and is a psychological process so rapid that it does not register on a conscious level.
  • Trusting your instincts can help when cultivating emotional intelligence. It can also promote innovation.
  • Combining intuition with an analysis of facts and numbers – and involving others in decision-making – helps you guard against unconscious bias.

Steve Jobs swore by it. Richard Branson says he relies on it more than hard data. Oprah Winfrey “tunes into it” before making tough decisions.

If “it” has worked for three among the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, surely “it” is a resource worth tapping into – and the good news is that an unlimited supply can be accessed for free. You just need to trust your gut.

If you’ve ever sensed something in your bones or had a sneaking suspicion beyond rational or analytical thought, your gut instinct was trying to tell you something.

More than a feeling, gut instinct – otherwise known as intuition – refers to the idea that people can make successful decisions without systematic thought.

Trusting your gut can promote creativity and innovation, and can help leaders cultivate emotional intelligence. At times of rapid, unprecedented change, it may also prove as valuable as turning to data and analytics.

However, how can you know that your instinct is right? How can you avoid acting on a hunch that is based in negative bias?

Did Plato get it wrong?

A psychological process so rapid that it does not register on a conscious level, intuition draws on past experiences and environmental cues.

Psychotherapist Timothy Hoffman says there is always a reason behind the decisions we make, but we are not always aware of it.

“Plato was wrong when he said reason leads emotion,” says Hoffman. “It’s in fact the opposite. We make our decisions emotionally, and then we look for reasons to support them.”

Hoffman cites a behavioural psychology model known as “The Rider, the Elephant and the Path”, which was presented by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

“The elephant is our emotions, and the rider is our reason,” Hoffman explains. “If the elephant decides it’s going to go in one direction, the rider just goes along, and there’s not much you can do about it. But, with some gentle guidance, sometimes the rider can affect the direction the elephant wants to go in, as long as the elephant doesn’t have any strong feelings either way.”

Applying gut instinct to problems can speed up the processing time of your conscious mind, which can be useful in a crisis.

Dr Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist and founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, says intuition also gets better with age.

“For those of us who have a lot of experience in a field, our intuition serves us a lot better, compared to if we’re more junior,” she says. “If something doesn’t seem quite right, you can kind of trust your gut on that, because you’ve had so much experience observing certain types of patterns in your field.”

A vital ingredient for innovation

Nathan Baird, founder of consultancy Methodry and author of Innovator’s Playbook, says gut instinct plays a vital role in innovation.

“There’s no factual data for the future and, when you’re innovating, you’re creating something for the future,” he says. “This means you have to use a mix of skills, including emotional skills and intuition, to solve problems for tomorrow.”

Baird believes business success requires a combination of hard data and gut instinct.

“For instance, if you want to create a new product, service or experience, you generally start in a concrete place, such as data that indicates a drop in customer satisfaction or a decline in market share in a particular category,” he says.

“But there is a point where you need to infer what the data or observations actually means. You have to use empathy, curiosity and creativity, and you definitely have to use intuition or gut feelings.”

Intuition can be more valuable than deep analysis in certain business situations, adds Baird.

“During brainstorming, scrutinising the ideas can kill any momentum you’ve had. When you’re being creative, you’re in flow. Pausing and analysing can be counterproductive.”

When instinct gets it wrong

Intuition is anchored in lived experience and is often shaped by bias that we may not wish – or indeed be able – to consciously acknowledge.

“With intuition, our rational reasons for making a decision are unconscious to us,” says Hoffman. “For example, you may not want to hire someone because you tell yourself that he or she is not experienced enough or hasn’t run the kind of business that you want them to run. But actually, the reason you don’t want to hire them is because they appear different to you. This may be because of their gender or socio-economic background or skin colour, for instance.

“If we don’t feel comfortable with someone, we look for reasons to support this, but we’re unlikely to say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable because they have a darker skin colour than I do’.”

In such instances, intuition can override reason, says Hoffman.

“Your intuition may tell you not to hire someone, even though their resume is perfect,” he says. “Sometimes, the reason for your emotional reaction is within you – in other words, it may be due to racism, or you don’t want to hire people who will challenge you. That’s going to have a very negative effect on your ability to recruit the best people.

“However, if you’re responding emotionally to something in the other person – you may feel that they are not telling the truth, for instance – then it could be a very positive thing.”

Should you act on a hunch?

If intuition is based in unconscious thought, how can you determine if your gut instinct is good or bad?

One way, says Hoffman, is to involve others in the decision-making process.

“During recruitment, for example, companies like Amazon figure out the critical competencies of a role, such as leadership, strategic ability, team player – and then assign a competency to each interviewer,” he says. “They have to come up with reasons why a candidate has or does not have the competency.

“When the interviewers come back together, the biases of any one individual tend to be wiped out by the information that everyone else is gathering.”

Another way to test your intuition, says Imber, is to back your hunch with hard data.

“If your company has a good idea-generation process, you’ll have tonnes of ideas that you could choose from, but resources are always limited,” she says.

“Using your gut can play a really important role in helping you decide which ideas to move forward, to run some experiments on and test in the market. However, using your gut instinct doesn’t eliminate the need for number-crunching.”

CPA Library resource: Decisive intuition: use your gut instincts to make smart business decisions. Read now.

How to strengthen your intuition

Pay more attention
The more information you gather from the environment, the more the intuitive, subconscious part of your brain has to work with – and the more accurately it will inform your decisions. Spend time away from your desk, ask questions, listen to others.

Make notes
If you have a hunch about something, write it down and then check back on it to see if your hunch was right. Make a habit of listing your hunches and track the results of following your intuition. How often were you right? Why may you have gotten it wrong?

Try meditation
Researchers from the University of Iowa have found that intuition is housed in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. How can you exercise this part of your brain? Meditation is a good way to start, according to a study by scientists at Wake Forest University. They found that meditation-related anxiety relief increases activity in various parts of the brain, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

The science behind intuition

How unconscious intuition can inform

Humans often put faith in mystical forces when confronted with complex challenges. However, Professor Joel Pearson, neuroscientist and director of Future Minds Lab at University of New South Wales (UNSW), says there is nothing magical about intuition – its existence can be scientifically proven.

In 2016, Pearson and his UNSW colleagues, Galang Lufityanto and Chris Donkin, conducted a study to demonstrate the extent to which unconscious intuition can inform – and even improve – decision-making.

They conducted experiments with groups of students who were shown a cloud of moving dots – similar to static on an analogue television – and asked if the cloud was moving left or right. At the same time, and without their knowledge, they were presented with emotional images that had been masked through continuous flash suppression.

“The images were either positive, like cute puppies, or negative, like a snake about to strike,” explains Pearson. “The students didn’t know that their brains were processing this emotional information.”

Across a series of experiments, Pearson and his colleagues found that students made faster and more accurate decisions about the direction of the moving dots when they unconsciously viewed the emotional images, both positive and negative.

“The student’s brains were able to process information from the images to improve their decisions,” says Pearson. “We also found that intuition got better over time. This suggests that the mechanisms of intuition can be improved with practice.”


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