Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Trust Your Gut (Sometimes) to Make Better Decisions

ARCHIVES
Image via Lebowitz/Shutterstock.com


Greatist is the fastest-growing fitness, health and happiness media start-up. Check out  more wellness news at Greatist.com.

Making decisions can be hard — so hard, in fact, that there’s even a website that aims to take the angst out of choosing between multiple options. Every day we’re faced with at least two divergent roads, whether it’s something as mundane as whole wheat versus white bread or as seemingly life-altering as which grad school to attend.

In these situations, I often turn to friends and family for help. But instead of a straightforward answer, I usually hear something along the lines of “Follow your heart” or “What does your gut tell you?” Frustrated, I decided to do some digging to find out whether “intuition” actually exists and whether it’s really a good way to make decisions. Turns out there’s a huge amount of research on the topic, and the subject is so controversial that researchers can’t even agree on what “intuition” means. But we’ve sifted through the debates to bring you the latest on when and whether to trust your gut.

Going With the Gut -- Why it Matters

Most of the studies I came across differentiate between intuitive and more analytical approaches to decision-making. While an analytical decision is generally reached after extensive reflection, the intuitive decision is the one we come up with instantly, without examining the issue in-depth. But that’s not to say intuition is the same as choosing at random. Some scientists think intuition is a series of cognitive processes that happen so quickly we don’t even realize we’re thinking at all. According to this theory, our brain takes in all the details about the present situation, compares it to similar circumstances in the past, and then uses all that information to make a decision. So a gut feeling might manifest as a quick heartbeat or a stomachache instead of a conscious thought (giving the phrase “trust your gut” a much more literal meaning).

Researchers have looked at the role of intuition in a range of situations, from playing chess to making a medical diagnosis. One study found that people make better decisions about potential purchases, such as cars and apartments, when mildly distracted, as opposed to when they think carefully about different options. There’s even some evidence that gut feelings can be just as accurate as the most high-tech MRI: Clinicians who trust their intuition that a child is seriously ill — even when medical tests suggest otherwise — are usually right.

Intuition may be an especially valuable tool when we’re familiar with the subject at hand. For example, people’s snap judgments about basketball shots are more likely to be accurate if they’ve spent some time on the court. Still, other research suggests there are certain situations when going with our gut may not lead to the best results.

More Than a Feeling? -- The Answer/Debate

When it comes to more methodical activities, such as playing chess or deciding which stocks to invest in, deliberation may actually be a more effective decision-making strategy than intuition. In one recent study, researchers found that chess players typically take a few minutes to think about their decision — and end up choosing stronger moves than the one they were initially planning to select.

But the distinction between intuition and deliberation is certainly not a black-and-white matter. Experts caution that even if we don’t spend time verbalizing our feelings or making a list of pros and cons, this doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking carefully or applying lessons learned from past experience to the present situation. So, for example, if someone visits an apartment and decides immediately to buy it, it’s unclear whether they have made an intuitive decision or if they have made a very fast deliberative decision based on a few relevant pieces of data, like the price and the neighborhood.

Suck in the Middle -- The Takeaway

It seems the question is less whether our gut feelings are categorically “right” or “wrong,” but rather how to take all our thoughts and emotions into account when making important decisions. In the case of medical professionals, researchers advise doctors not to automatically heed their gut feelings, but to consult another doctor for a second opinion and do some further investigation. Other scientists advise people to literally “listen to their heart” — in other words, to pay attention to physiological symptoms, such as a quick-beating heart, as a sign that something may be wrong.

Regardless of how we come to a decision, experts tend to agree that it’s important to reflect on a choice once it’s made. This navel-gazing allows us to see how we could have tackled the situation differently by taking note of our initial feelings or pausing to reconsider them. We may not be able to make the right choice in every circumstance, but the good news is we can learn from these experiences and apply them to making better decisions in the future.

Special thanks to Justin LavnerJerad Moxley, and Dr. K. Anders Ericsson for their contributions to this piece.

How do you make difficult decisions? What does “trusting your gut” mean to you? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.

How happy does your job make you? What are some of the biggest stressors you encounter in your workplace and how do you get past them?

Read more at Greatist.com:

Image via Lebowitz/Shutterstock.com

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.