Should you trust your gut?

Has there ever been a time when you swear that you know about certain things and events that will happen, although you cannot describe how you come to know it? While you might call this as your ‘gut feeling,’ this sense – known as intuition – does not necessarily arise from your stomach.

People often say trust your intuition. When is it a good idea to trust your intuition, your gut feeling, and when is it best to ignore it? Intuition or that gut feeling is simply the innate ability to make good decisions with less-than-complete data.

The neuroscience of trusting your gut

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute. His research concerns how rationality, emotion, and our physical bodies are all intertwined in the way we make decisions. Rather than being opposed, emotion and reason are deeply interrelated: if you’re going to make sound and rational decisions, he contends, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions accelerate your decision making – in the form of intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings.

A hunch is a somatic marker: a physiological clue of what to do next. When you’re anxious, you might feel tense in your back, when you’re content, your shoulders and your hips might relax accordingly. So when you’re making a call about a future decision, these physical sensations guide (or bias) you toward or away from certain actions.

Because your brain is constantly processing and storing information it is also constantly comparing current experiences to past experiences. Perhaps stated another way, the brain is constantly comparing patterns of current environmental cues to stored patterns from previous experiences. The pattern matches are what provides you with intuition – or as it is sometimes framed – knowing without knowing how you know.

Under stress, the brain is gathering and processing many facts, much of which is happening outside of awareness. These facts, formed into patterns, are then sent into high brain processing areas and compared to past experiences. When you get that ‘gut feeling’ you are benefiting from intuition – a pattern match.

When to follow your intuition

If you make a decision based purely on intuition (or gut feel) and someone asks you for the proof and evidence, you may not be able to produce it. Remember, intuition and pattern matching happen OUTSIDE your conscious awareness, so you may find yourself being unable to articulate WHY you felt the way you did but you, nonetheless, sensed something was wrong. Nevertheless, there are only a select number of times that you should heed your hunches. These scenarios include:

Something you specialise in. According to most psychologists, intuition is learned expertise in concealment. For example, if you have been a doctor for more than a decade, it is safe to say that you can go with your gut feeling about a certain sickness. After all, diagnosing and treating patients are what you have been doing for most of your life.

A need for a special opinion. If you have asked for advice from a certain person – and you are not quite convinced with what he just said, then maybe it is time that you sought the help of another individual – perhaps one with more years or expertise than him.

A big-money investment. Whether it is a car or a home, it is best if you went with your intuition. Studies show that those who purchased expensive items with the use of their gut feeling ended up happier than those who went with critical deliberation alone.

Practice makes perfect

Intuition is a domain-specific ability, meaning that an individual can have good gut feelings in one domain, and bad insight about another. Just like any power of the mind, intuition gets better with practice. After all, gut feeling is about the brain’s power to see through recurring events or patterns. The more familiar you are with a certain domain, the faster your brain processes heuristic solutions for a certain situation.

Intuition is one of the brain’s ways of helping you decide, especially in instances and scenarios that you have been through most of the time. While your gut feeling might be right, it is always safe to think rationally before undertaking a huge decision.

So is intuition hopelessly error-ridden? Or is it an essential tool for fast and decisive decision-making? It’s a crucial question for anyone considering using intuition in management. Experts’ intuition can be led astray – overconfidence, making long-term predictions, making judgements outside their realm of expertise – but it also agreed that intuition works, with the right type of expertise, in the right situations.

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You might be interested in their upcoming 2-day course scheduled for 9 – 10 December, 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Click here to look at Maurice Kerrigan Africa’s training schedule or to make a booking.

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