Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Instincts

Among the most annoying platitudes we have is the saying “Always trust your gut”, a reference to your deepest instincts. 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. cheeseburgers and milkshakes). 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. To be able to say “I’ve sorted through my instincts and here’s what I’ve decided” is a far better path towards good decisions.
  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 biased by recent events. 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, which means different instincts can help or hurt you depending on many factors.
  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 (paraphrasing Will Rogers). 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 instincts, but due to forces out of your control, still fail. It’s also possible to ignore your instincts, 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 instincts 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)

49 Responses to “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Instincts”

  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.”

    1. Mrs Smith

      I think this post is full of way to much doubt !! and physcological jumble ……….. Why do you make things so complicated for people to understand !! I trust my gut instinct massively and so far it’s never let me down in life. We all make mistakes sometimes when we go with our gut but generally no one knows you inside out than yourself right ?! Learn to trust you gut instinct, stop being so afraid of “what if I’m wrong” so what, if you get it wrong you’ve learnt another lesson. What if you do as everyone around you says and completely ignore that inner voice and your made to feel like a complete fool …… You will only have yourself to blame for ignoring what your gut instinct was telling you in the first place.
      Quit making everything so deep and physcological !! somethings in life just are’nt that complex or difficult to understand.

    2. whatkindofmessisthishaha

      This post is basically telling people not to trust themselves. Bad advice, questionable research topic. Makes me wonder if it’s biased.

  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.

    1. 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.

        1. Ella

          I like this a lot. You make really good points.

      1. Amy

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

      2. gonzo

        Yes thats wonderful Scott except it makes me think why is so much forthright philosophy about camping on the fence. Fuck it, trust your gut above your meagre intellect, if you have character its either right or youll learn something anyway. Trusting your intellect is like suggesting you were right to begin with.. nothing learnt. Characterless individuals must rely on that, those with faith in themselves shall overcome such whimsical nonsense. E.g. Garry Winogrand.

        1. Chad Cetti

          gonzo, speak for your own intellect. Mine certainly isn’t meager. That being said, I can over-think situations that end many times with my saying, “damn, I should have just listened to my gut.” Then there are other times when I wishes I had thought more. I don’t know everything, but I like to believe the gut and intellect naturally work in tandem. I think if we only use one or the other ALL the time, we get out of balance. I’ll second what Scott said, “moderation.”

  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.

    1. Scott

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

  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.

  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.

    1. lashana

      i think it really depends. yeah if you had no information prior to telling you its a bad decision then I think trusting your gut can be more acceptable. Like if you drove along a certain part of the road and got a chill , and you thought wow im not going down this street again you need to take into account a few things
      – Did something happen along this street when you were younger to bias you
      – did you have people put bias onto you such as things from your friends like ” oh i hate that street” before you even drove down it?
      – or is this just something thats totally if you will ‘random’ and you have no other information (intellect) to tell you otherwise.

      Sometimes we avoid the ache in our bodies, I think we need to accept them first and just let the feeling be, then when we can accept it, we’ll be more willing to make a decision that is better calculated spiritually/ emotionally.

    2. Mircea Enache

      @Girish this is just pure bullshit … I trusted my instincts so many times in life and they were wrong so many times too – sometimes they were right … but only sometimes.

      Mostly what I discovered is that if you have massive experience in a field and results to prove it – you can trust your instincts – if not then your instincts are wrong.

      One simple example : if you want to approach unknown girls in a new envinronment – your instincts will tell you that this is wrong -you shouldn’t do it – that’s how it was for me – guess what ? My instincts were wrong and I am glad I didn’t listened to them .

  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!

  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.

  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 !

  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…

  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. :)

  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.

  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”

  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.

    1. 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?

      1. Steven Wesler

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

        1. 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. ;-)

          1. 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

    2. 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).

  14. 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.

  15. Lorraine

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

  16. John

    i was always a trust your brain kind of guy

  17. Frank

    I just made a decision to quit my current job and take a job that went against my gut instinct, I start the job in two weeks. It made quite a bit of logical sense to do so. Thus far I don’t feel good about it, I’ll put up a reply after I start the position and let you all know how it works out.

  18. Martin

    You obviously have no idea about what gut instinct really is.. do you ? The things you mention in this post, is not gut instincts at all.. Its more mind chatter..

    if you live a life predominantly in your mind.. You wont really have acces to your gut instincts.. Basically because your mind is too noisy for you to even recognize your guts calling..

    1. ben ashworth

      exactly. I have never had a gut instinct . I mean, it always has some conscious thought behind it. I have had gut feelings*butterflys “from to anxiety or fear, but never mad a decision without a thought

      like if I see someone and have a “feeling” , they aren’t about someone, it Is because I notice data that I have seen or experienced before. and I have a conscious THOUGHT “hey, that dude never smiled. so my feeling is that he isn’t happy”

      I Have made random decisions from not having any previous experience or lack of data, but I have never felt that the decision is definitely wrong or definitely wrong. Basically, it is like throwing at a dart board with a blind fold kind of decision.

  19. Kerstin Fehn

    I would say that this article actually highlights the benefits of fine tuning gut, heart and head responses. Many people today live mostly in the head, which leads to confusion. Even people who describe themselves as spiritual and are connected through heart and head, feel too much sway in the wrong direction emotionally sometimes. Gut reactions on the other hand, are your body/animal instincts which pick up details ignored by the natural bias of the other two. Awareness of it is something that can be taught. It’s natural and some say it doesn’t need to be taught, but my opinion is firstly that we have ignored being animals for a long time, and that one can have a great talent yet can still benefit from lessons to become more aware and fine tune that awareness. Not meaning to spam here, but this is exactly what I do with clients.

  20. Altonisha Womack

    This article is so true. Explains exactly what I’ve been going through. This was put into words really well. Couldn’t have been said any better. This will really help me to analyze things differently.

  21. Holly

    Nice. One of the greatest things about man-kind is our intelligence. Choosing to ignore ones instincts happens rarely, and when trusted are quickly contradicted. May logic and reason be more trusted? Or as humans, do we live to defy, survive by defying, finite odds?

  22. Jam

    I think that 6 sense exists and always tells us the solution. You only need to hear it.

    1. Human

      No doubt, you have plenty of experiences that confirm your belief. However, there is plenty of evidence that disproves it.

  23. Joel J

    I would suggest that while our intuition is part of the mind-body axis, it ultimately come from our subconscious reasons and thoughts in the brain, which Scott eludes to in his initial point. We haven’t yet fully processed these emotions in our mind but our body can do so quickly (e.g. body language) and thus we see physical or psychological manifestations of that.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Interesting point – we respond so quickly to other people’s body language as if it were the true expression of how they feel, but it’s really just their first impression.



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