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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- [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)