Among the most annoying platitudes is “Always trust your gut”. This is mostly bad advice and I will explain why.

  1. Our instincts (‘guts’) can say contradictory things. We often feel fear just before we do something we deeply desire, such as getting married, or interviewing for a job we really want. We can also feel great attraction to things that are bad for us (e.g. heroin cheeseburgers). There is often no singular ‘instinct’ but a multitude of feelings that must be actively sorted out. Biologically there is little difference between fear and excitement, meaning it’s our psychology and attitude that has to sort out what our instincts trying to tell us.
  2. We don’t know ourselves that well. Why do you like your favorite food but not the same ones your friends do? Why are you attracted to certain people but not others? Why do you make the same mistakes again and again? Most people are not aware of their instincts, or even why they make most of the decisions they do. You can’t trust your instincts if you don’t know what your instincts are trying to tell you. Some people know themselves better than others and have better reasons for trusting their instincts.
  3. Instincts are situation dependent. Depending on what happened to you yesterday, the way your instincts respond to what happens today will change. Instincts are not static. We are heavily biases by recent events and the way we perceive threats and rewards changes. We are also prone to influence from people around us, and their behavior changes what our instincts tell us. We all have better and worse instincts for different types of situations.
  4. Some of our instincts are better trained than others. If you are a trained artist your eye has been coached through hours of practice to see things most people do not. Your instincts for composition, form, balance and style may be finely tuned, better than many of your other instincts. To trust your well trained instincts is one thing, to trust your untrained ones is another. The advice ‘trust your gut’ assumes all of your instincts are well trained, when the opposite is true.
  5. Good judgement comes from mistakes which comes from bad judgement. To develop your instincts requires practice, which means making mistakes so you can learn from them. You need to experiment with trusting your judgement, but also not trusting your judgement, to get the experience needed for good judgement to grow. You need metainstincts – instincts about how to interpret your own instincts.
  6. Data trumps memory. We have poor retroactive memories. When we pick X, and we’re wrong, we’ll say “Damn! I knew I should have picked Y”. Really? Are you sure? If you didn’t write it down and capture your thinking before you made the decision, you are going to be biased in how you think about your thinking afterwards. For tough decisions we often change our minds many times, which makes retroactive doubt useless. Sure, at some point you were leaning towards Y, but that doesn’t teach you anything since tough decisions require exploring multiple options. Simply because the outcome wasn’t what you wanted doesn’t mean you made ‘a mistake’.
  7. You can succeed for the wrong reasons, and fail for the right ones. You can be correct in trusting your gut, but due to forces out of your control, still fail. It’s also possible to ignore your gut, and have everything work out great. A single trial is a shallow basis for evaluating anything. We have big egos and assume the outcomes for important things are entirely on our shoulders but that’s rarely true. Even worse, success hides more data than failure does. There are many very successful people who have no idea why they were successful, but don’t know that either and possibly never will.
  8. [Updated] – Our guts are easy to manipulate. Advertisers, marketers and salesman play on specific instincts and try to convince us to use them to override our own good judgement.

Sometimes you should trust your instincts, but even when you do, that trust should be earned, and trusted differently based on your experience with the situation you are in.

What do your instincts say about this post? Leave a comment.

(This post inspired by a conversation with Paolo Malabuyo)

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28 Responses to “Should you always trust your gut?”

  1. Abby |

    Here’s what Stephen Colbert had to say on this issue:

    “That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.”

    Reply
  2. Eugene |

    The reverse advice–always ignore your gut–is even more dangerous. It would mean you would never learn. At least acknowledge your instinct.

    Data doesn’t trump instinct. We need our instincts to navigate a complex and shifting world of data overload.

    Towards that, the most important goal is to train your instinct. And that sometimes means following the gut,
    even if your mind thinks it might be wrong, but use your mind come up with a plan to minimize the consequences.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      All the dichotomies are silly, which is part of why I wanted to write the post. ‘Always trust your gut’ is often offered by someone giving someone else advice where they think advice-receiver is too worried about what other people think. They really mean ‘you need to spend at least some time digging deeper into what you both think and feel, as currently you are spending too much time looking for a ‘right’ answer that comes from someone else’

      Moderation in all things, including moderation.

      Reply
      • Curtis |

        Very well said, Scott.

        Reply
      • Amy |

        I like “trust yourself” precisely for the reasons you mentioned. We can benefit from learning to trust all of our parts and tendencies.

        Reply
  3. Kenneth Vogt |

    The term “gut check” comes to mind. It doesn’t advocate trusting it or not trusting it, just check in, get present.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Excellent comment. Yes, that term is much better since it asks a question, and not a guide for how to decide something. Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Erik Larson (@erikdlarson) |

    It seems like the oracle at delphi (not the one in redwood shores) had it right: before seeking outside guidance, gnōthi seauton, know thyself. Asking how well you know yourself before trusting or distrusting your gut is always a good idea. If you’ve never been married and your gut is feeling squirrely, it is not such a big deal. If you’ve been married a dozen times, then maybe that gut check is worth paying attention to. Then again, maybe you don’t know $#!% about being married, but you should still roll the dice once more because you believe marriage is a beautiful thing worth doing, damn the costs.

    So I agree with the gist of your post. Seeking prescriptions from your gut, or other sources, seems to be a fool’s errand without first coming to know how you relate to the decisions you face.

    Reply
  5. Girish |

    I think this article is plain wrong. Always trust your gut.

    The gut works only in certain situations when the subconscious is at work when we take important decisions. Other times we use your intellect or still better your heart. Gut comes into play when we dunno where from the suggestion is coming.

    Reply
  6. Christoph Begall |

    This article is excellent. Although my biggest personal challenge lies with sometimes trusting my gut, I find this encouraging to develop this further. But I think it is perfectly right to not trust it blindly. Once you have learned to listen to the many nerve endings and “feel” that there is something going on there, you can always decide that the facts in question are in your own “area of good judgement”. If so, trust your gut. Most of the time it is not, and often we only know what the gut wants to say after actively thinking about it. Thanks for this!

    Reply
  7. Greg Linster |

    My instincts tell me to always be skeptical of advice that contains the word “always”, except, of course, this wonderful piece of advice.

    Reply
    • Bonny |

      Like

      Reply
  8. Maxime Macron (@MaximeMacron) |

    Excellent article. It reminds me how you illustrated the “don’t trust your guts” in your “Confession of a public speaker” book, with the mental picture of a lion, ready to eat you when starting up a conference in front of your audience (in this case, trusting your guts is not a good idea).

    However, I also agree with Kenneth Vogt. When you have to take complex decisions, analyzing facts in details can be overwhelming, and the natural trend of our brain’s behavior is to try to simplify things (Robert Cialdini – influence: The Psychology of Persuasion).
    When your brain does this, you become subject to being manipulated (by skilled people who know in which way they can bias your simplification), and if so, “guts check” can save your day !

    Reply
  9. Jon Innes |

    Hey Scott, great post.

    Whenever I’ve been asked about the role of intuition in product design, I always suggest folks translate their gut or intuition into a hypothesis that can be clearly tested. The scary thing is so many people fall prey to confirmation bias.

    My belief is that in UI design (and business in general) the lack of an empirical mindset is behind most of the big failures. There’s nothing wrong with making gut based calls under pressure, but if your past is filled with them and nobody’s keeping score it’s easy to develop a sense of false confidence.

    Hopefully, by the time you reach the point where you’re in a position to make critical decisions you’ve got years of experience. You’ve honed your instincts based on situations where you had unambiguous feedback.

    If not, you’re a time bomb…

    Reply
  10. Paul Baranowski |

    Personally, I would heartily disagree with your premise that “always trust your gut” is bad advise. My life became infinitely better when I started following my gut. The other side is to be always stuck in your head and pretty much ignoring the obvious. However, you do have to learn the difference between gut-level fear and gut-level wisdom. To know this difference requires you to know when you are in reaction (feeling negative emotions). Some people learn to be aware of negative emotions growing up, and for the rest of us this is trainable through regular meditation or similar awareness techniques. When you are not in reaction, you should not only be trusting your gut, you should be living from your gut. :)

    Reply
  11. Jason Crawford |

    I agree. I think the best policy is to always listen to your “gut”, but never to 100% trust it. Treat it as input, and an important input, to a decision. If it disagrees with your conscious judgment, work to figure out why and to bring them into alignment. But, just like the input of an expert adviser, your gut (really your subconscious) is sometimes wrong. Reason, not feelings, must make the final decision.

    Reply
  12. Paul |

    “Life is short” …

    The statement “life is short” is used to suggest that there are things in life that are a waste of time. You shouldn’t feel angry about X, Y or Z because “life is short” … It’s a fallacy, a falsehood. You should have a better reason for thinking something is unimportant than “life is short”

    Reply
  13. Steven Wesler |

    Many decisions are basically simple. Of the choices, some are very obvious. But most are not obvious and are deciding between 2 good choices or which is the least distasteful. That’s when the gut comes into play. When there is really no right or wrong decision, But a decision must be made.

    Reply
    • Erik Larson |

      I agree, Steven. The advice to ‘always trust your gut’ is used for the decisions you describe, when there is no right answer. They also tend to be important decisions, and they are certainly the more difficult ones we face. Perhaps the advice is better as, ‘Your gut is all you’ve got, so you better be able to trust it.’ That extends the line of Scott’s final thoughts…how do you make your gut more trustworthy?

      Reply
      • Steven Wesler |

        Then on the other hand, I find that if I just listen to my wife, I will have no decision to make!

        Reply
        • Erik Larson |

          LoL! I’m in the same boat. Maybe the real advice should be “Always trust your wife’s gut.” I just blogged about some research on the decision-making differences between men and women – it turns out women find their guts, aka their hearts, significantly more helpful than men do, so that supports the hypothesis. Lots more wife jokes come to mind, but I think I’ll trust my gut and let them be. ;-)

          Reply
          • Abby |

            “What our gut tells us a manipulator is like, challenges everything we’ve been taught to believe about human nature. We’ve been inundated with a psychology that has us seeing everybody, at least to some degree, as afraid, insecure or “hung-up.” So, while our gut tells us we’re dealing with a ruthless conniver, our head tells us they must be really frightened or wounded “underneath.” What’s more, most of us generally hate to think of ourselves as callous and insensitive people. We hesitate to make harsh or seemingly negative judgments about others. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t really harbor the malevolent intentions we suspect. We’re more apt to doubt and blame ourselves for daring to believe what our gut tells us about our manipulator’s character.”

            Excerpt from the book: In Sheep’s Clothing by George K. Simon

    • Christoph Begall |

      About easy decisions or decisions, that should be easy I liked the poem by Piet Hein that I have seen in a post by Dan Ariely (http://danariely.com/2012/10/27/ask-ariely-on-planning-ahead-halloween-rationing-and-flipping-coins):

      “Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind

      And you’re hampered by not having any,

      the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

      is simply by spinning a penny.

      No—not so that chance shall decide the affair

      while you’re passively standing there moping;

      but the moment the penny is up in the air,

      you suddenly know what you’re hoping.”

      See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203406404578075011330270892.html?KEYWORDS=DAN+ARIELY).

      Reply
  14. Kakanui |

    Maybe the Diceman had the answer.

    Reply
  15. Lorraine |

    Articles very interesting. In a relationship, my heart says go for it, my Gut says run. Don’t know what to do, appreciate any feedback.

    Reply
  16. Lorraine |

    Would like to hear any comments about a relationship concerning should I follow my heart or gut.

    Reply

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