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
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.
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.
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