When to Listen to Your Gut and When to Tell It to Shut Up

Many a business has been conceived, born, and grown on a hunch. Consider the typical story of the young rebellious founder who invested all of their time and effort into a risky idea and won out big. Or the precarious businessman who has somehow developed an intuition for the “ways of the business”. Or even the person who dreams of something and it happens.

Most of it is just residual from the time we needed instinct and intuition to navigate the dangerous lands and avoid animals that could kill us. But ever since we became intelligent and reasonable beings, the need for this “sixth sense” has been less pronounced. Nevertheless, it has stuck with us. Just look at the successful people who swear by it. Steve Jobs called intuition “more powerful than intellect”. Another intellectual who valued it was Einstein:

There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.

So there is something there, something that invites a deeper look. In my own personal experience — which is not that much — I have found that not everything I consider a hunch is one. On the other hand, almost every time I’ve had a hunch and not acted on it, I’ve lost ground.

So should you listen to your gut? The answer: it depends. So what I’ll do is list five instances and go with either yes or no or both.

Ready? Go.

When It’s a Big Deal – Yes

So you have to buy a house. Or a car. Or there’s a big merger on the horizon. In other words you have to make a big choice, so you start weighing all the pros and cons. You ask your partner, your friends, your boss. And the more you think about it, the hardest the choice becomes. Stop.

What you have to do in this instance is trust your first instinct.

Science tells us that you’ll be happier if you decide quickly and intuitively. So when a bunch of car-buyers were choosing, the ones who took their time were on average less happy than the ones who chose quickly.

overthinking-gif

It has something to do with over-thinking — the more information piles up, the more confused you get, and your decision-making ability becomes stunted. It’s important to be able to decide quickly and firmly. Otherwise you’ll be like me — spending two hours on a birthday card.

When You Have a “Bad Feeling” – No

So you’re working at home, you’re tired and stressed, and you’re on the brink of a major deal… except suddenly you get the “feeling” that it’s not going to happen. It’s going to slip through your fingers.

Relax. This is a classic case of fear-induced inference. What your brain does is start worrying on a rational level, which then spirals into irrational fast. It’s because of the emotional feedback you’re sending to your brain when you worry continuously. Consider the jealous boyfriend who becomes convinced that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and the more he suspects, the more he thinks he “knows” that it’s happening.

Furthermore, when it comes to emotions (and stress), the brain can get easily confused — we all know it’s true when we’re in love. I mean, of course your brain will get confused — you feel the same in the gut when you feel scared and when you feel excited. Have you thought about that?

So next time you have a “bad feeling”, make sure it’s grounded in logic, not in your gut. The gut can be a deceiving devil.

When Something Could Harm You – Yes

Evolutionary speaking, we’re animals, and animals process cues from their environment to look out for dangerous elements, like bigger animals. When all signs lead to CODE RED, we crank up the biological alarm. Sometimes it’s not as bad as “fight or flight”, but just a tiny alert saying “something’s not right here”. Then you look around and everything seems fine.

My advice? Get to safety fast. Your brain is a complex machine. It’s able to process cues at a very fast speed, which sometimes get stuck in the unconscious part, but manage to manifest into a gut feeling.

One such example is the case of a Formula One driver, who braked just on time to save his life — without any initial warning, just a sense that something was wrong. What happened was that his brain processed the cue — the crowd not cheering — and “sensed” that something must be off.

Indeed, this very ability of ours to sense danger and act on it in a split second is what keeps us alive sometimes. So listen to your gut when it warns you about danger. They say, better safe than sorry, for a good reason.

When You Jump to Conclusions – Both

So you have just met a candidate for a job and something about the way they talk makes you “feel” uncomfortable. It’s a hunch.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible book Blink, you’d know that you’re actually amazingly good at thin-slicing — which means judging something without having any information about it. So, for example, you see a person and you can instantly judge what their personality is.

But there’s another side to this — stereotypes. Some preconceived ideas that we hold about certain groups can harm us or those around us. Even though these ideas are not true, we have the feeling that they are. So when you meet someone for the first time, give them a chance to show you what they’re like. Especially if you’re aware of any prejudice that you might have.

Also, Gladwell specifically stresses the danger of thin-slicing when you don’t have enough experience. For example, an experienced trader can immediately predict what’s going to happen before it does, and while some may call this a hunch, it’s just their mind thin-slicing — processing the information they have in a very fast, practiced way.

So the more experience you have, the more you can trust your gut. 🙂

When Someone Might Be Lying – Both

Sometimes you know in your gut something’s wrong with someone, but there’s absolutely no evidence. They act nice, they smile at you, and they’re nice to your friends. But your gut just won’t let go of this feeling.

Then it turns out that person is a psychological liar. Ouch.

It happened to me a few years back. One of my so-called friends was lying about literally everything, but instead of disappointment, I felt relief, because my gut had known it all along.

social_psychopath-vs-sociopath

If your gut tells you there’s something wrong with someone, you should listen. (Especially if this feeling lasts a long time.) Even if you can’t see any evidence to support your case, your brain is picking up cues — body language, visual discrepancies, mistakes — which it then processes and makes its conclusions on a subconscious level.

Research suggests that we’re bad at spotting liars, but we’re better when we take away information. So if you know this person, you’re less likely to figure that they’re lying than if you’ve just seen their photo.

Moral of the story? Whether someone’s really lying to you or not, you should always listen to your gut when it nags you.

In conclusion,

A great rule of thumb: Trust your gut when you have no reason to believe it is deceiving you. And I’ve only shared a few scenarios here, but there are many more out there. What are your experiences of trusting or ignoring your gut?

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.