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Should You Trust Your Gut?

Gut Feel

Gut Feel

When my students in critical thinking start to separate logic from emotion, they often say things like:

“I used to get tangled up between thinking and feeling. I now realize that I should ignore my feelings.”

“Emotions don’t help me think clearly. I’m not going to pay attention to them any more.”

These students have swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. On one end, thoughts and emotions are indeed tangled up. On the other end, thought reigns supreme; emotion is banished. Is that good? Should we really ignore our emotions?

Actually, no. Our emotions tell us something. They may warn us of dangers that we’re not aware of consciously. They may also be flat out wrong. It’s a System 1 issue. We use shortcuts – heuristics — to get quick answers. Many times those shortcuts produce the right answer. Sometimes they don’t. Wisdom is knowing the difference.

Here’s my advice on when you probably should and probably shouldn’t pay attention to your emotions:

Probably should – when something feels wrong, but you’re not sure what. You feel ill at ease with a new acquaintance but you don’t know why. You’re thinking about investing in a company that seems to have good prospects, but something feels wrong.

Your System 1 is always scanning the environment, alerting your subconscious to useful (and not so useful) information. It spots the pothole and guides your foot around it. It may also spot “potholes” in that company with good prospects or in your new acquaintance.

In situations like these, it’s good idea to step back, look around, and switch on all your observational tools. Above all, slow things down. Your System 1 is warning you that something needs further investigation. It’s a good idea to investigate.

Remember, however, that your System 1 can be overly protective. It doesn’t like novelty. It’s crotchety. It doesn’t particularly like strangers – especially if they look or act or talk differently. If you always listen to System 1 warnings, you’ll miss out on a lot of interesting people and adventures. So, when System 1 tells you to investigate further, it’s a good idea to do exactly that. But keep an open mind.

Maybe/maybe not – retrospective dot connection. We all make up stories about why things happened in the past. I can tell you a very clearheaded story of how and why my career evolved just as it did. For the most part, I’ll be wrong.

We find it very hard to accept that things might happen randomly. Perhaps there’s no rhyme or reason to it at all. That’s emotionally unsatisfying. It means we have no control. So we make up stories that seem logical but may be completely untrue. It’s called confabulation.

Unfortunately, we don’t realize that we’re doing it. The story sounds logical so we assume it’s true. We assume that the little model of reality that we build in our heads accurately reflects the reality that’s “out there”. We also assume that other people have the same view of reality. It’s not true.

It’s hard not to build stories. You’ll probably continue to do it. Just be aware that you’re doing it and that your stories are (probably) wrong.

Probably not – anything statistical. As Daniel Kahneman and others have pointed out, we’re naturally terrible at statistics, even if we’re trained at it. We assume that there are patterns where there are none. We assume that we can predict future outcomes based on past performance. We can’t.

So, if your intuition tells you that the number 24 is “due” to come up on the roulette wheel – it hasn’t been seen in over an hour – just ignore it. You’re wrong, you’re a lousy statistician, and you always will be.

More Thumb Thinking

Us versus them.

Remember heuristics? They’re the rules of thumb that allow us to make snap judgments, using System 1, our fast, automatic, and ever-on thinking system. They can also lead us into errors. Last time I wrote about heuristics (click here), we looked at three of the 17 different error categories: satisficing, temporizing, and availability. Let’s look at four more today.

Affect — what’s your first response? What’s your initial impression? What does your gut tell you? These are all questions about your affect heuristic — more commonly known as gut feel. System 1 usually has the first word on a decision. If you let System 1 also have the last word on the decision, you’re making an affect-based decision. It may be a good decision — or maybe not. If you want to double check the accuracy of your affect, you need to fire up System 2. People with “poor impulse control” often stick with System 1 only and don’t engage System 2.

Simulation — if it’s easy to imagine a given outcome, then it’s more likely that outcome will occur, right? Not necessarily. At least in part, it depends on how good your imagination is. Salespeople can use simulation to very good effect: “Imagine how you would feel in this new suit.” “Don’t you think it would be great to drive a car like this?” “Imagine what other people will think of you when they see you on this motorcycle!” Simulation simply invokes your imagination. If it’s easy to imagine something, you may convince yourself that it’s actually going to happen. You could be right or you could be a victim of wishful thinking. Before you make a big decision, engage System 2.

Representation — “She looks like my ex-girlfriend. Therefore, she probably acts like my ex-girlfriend.” You notice that there’s a similarity between X and Y on one dimension. Therefore, you conclude that X and Y are similar on other dimensions as well. You’re letting one dimension represent other dimensions. This is essentially a poor analogy. The similarity in one dimension has nothing to do with similarities in other dimensions. Generally, the more profound a similarity is, the more likely it is to affect other dimensions. Physical appearance is not very profound. In fact, it’s apparently only skin deep.

Us versus Them — “The Republicans like this idea. Therefore, we have to hate it.” Unfortunately, we saw a lot of this in our recent elections. In fact, politics lends itself to the us versus them heuristic — because politics often boils down to a binary choice. Politics is also about belonging. I belong to this group and, therefore, I’m opposed to that group. This is often referred to as identity politics and is driven by demonstrative (as opposed to deliberative) speeches. In warfare, the us versus them heuristic may be good leadership. After all, you have to motivate your troops against a determined enemy. In politics, on the other hand, it smacks of manipulation. Time to fire up System 2. (For my article on demonstrative and deliberative speeches, click here).

Do you see yourself in any of these heuristics? Of course you do. All of us use heuristics and we use them pretty much every day. It’s how we manage “reality”. Unfortunately, they can also trick us into mistakes in logic and judgment. As you become more aware of these heuristics, you may want to engage System 2 more frequently.

To prepare this article, I drew primarily on Peter Facione’s Think Critically. (Click here)

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