Go With Your Gut: The Science of Instinct

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 27, 2016

I had a feeling about it.
I just knew.

It was a hunch.
My intuition told me.
I acted on instinct.
I felt it in my gut.

We’ve all felt that experience countless times in our lives.

It happens when we’re interviewing a potential job candidate or being interviewed ourselves. When we’re sizing up a potential business partner or a new client. It happens when we walk into a restaurant and catch sight of our blind date at the bar. Or when we cross the threshold into the two-story colonial our real-estate agent has assured us “is just perfect for you.”

We’re gripped by a powerful, visceral feeling, a deep sense of certainty that tells us what to do. Hire the guy. Don’t take the job. Move forward with the deal. This is the person you’re going to marry. Make an offer on the house.

And years later when you tell the story, you’ll say it was the best decision of your life. Good thing you listened to your gut.

Related: The Best Decision I Ever Made

The Power of Instinct

The phenomenon of gut instinct has been studied by a broad range of experts: psychologists, economists, microbiologists and sociologists. There’s widespread agreement on a couple of points. First, our gut instinct isn’t some magical, mystical force. Rather, says cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, Ph.D., author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions and The Power of Intuition, “It’s the way we translate our experience into judgment and actions.”

When Klein studied how individuals such as firefighters and emergency medical personnel make instant life-or-death decisions, he found they were able to size up situations rapidly by picking up subtle cues, patterns and anomalies, and then take decisive action without having to stop and conduct deliberate analysis. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for the pioneering work he did in decision-making, called this “System 1” thinking. It’s fast, instinctual and emotional.

The second big point about gut feelings is that we couldn’t survive without them. “More than 99 percent of the decisions we make every day, we make without deliberation,” says Carl Spetzler, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Strategic Decisions Group, a strategic management consulting firm headquartered in Palo Alto, California. He’s also lead author of the new book Decision Quality: Value Creation from Better Business Decisions. Those automatic decisions—what Malcolm Gladwell called “thinking without thinking” in his best-selling book Blink—include everything from choosing which foot to start with when you begin to walk to hitting the brakes when you see a line of cars stopped in front of you on the highway, to grabbing your 1-year-old when she begins tumbling off the sofa.

But if you think you’d make better choices if emotions didn’t get in your way, think again. “Without our intuitions, we’d be paralyzed,” Klein says. “There is very powerful research on people with brain damage that disconnects the emotional parts of their brains from the decision-making parts of their brains. Their IQ is not affected, but their lives are terribly impaired. They can’t hold down jobs. Their relationships suffer. It can take them 45 minutes to figure out what to order from a menu because they don’t have any sense of what they want.”

On the other hand (and there’s always another hand in the realm of decision-making), relying on your gut alone is a pretty efficient formula for wrecking a business, a marriage or a life. In their groundbreaking work, Kahneman and his late partner Amos Tversky revealed that intuitive thinking, without further reflection, is often faulty thinking. Numerous biases are at play when we make fast decisions under conditions of uncertainty. To cite just a few:

  • We tend to have an “optimistic bias,” believing we’ll succeed in the face of long odds.
  • We place more faith in something we heard about recently than events that happened years ago and are less easy to remember; that’s called “availability bias.”
  • Vivid occurrences are also more likely to influence us, which is why we typically overestimate the number of people killed in plane accidents and underestimate fatalities from car crashes.
  • “Confirmation bias” means we often ignore information that doesn’t support our existing beliefs and give too much weight to data that’s in sync with our current mindset.
  • In “hindsight bias,” or the “I-knew-it-all-along effect,” we imagine that we were better at predicting, say, the ups and downs in our industry than we actually were.

Put all these biases together and we end up with what Kahneman calls WYSIATI, an acronym for “what you see is all there is.” That’s the unconscious conviction that everything we need to make a decision is right in front of us. After all, we feel it in our gut.

Paying attention to your gut, most experts would agree, is a valuable first step in reaching a decision. But unless the decision involves something like picking out a puppy from a litter, you’ll want to combine it with more effortful and logical deliberation, what Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking. If System 1 provides a fast-and-furious first draft, System 2 hones that draft into a PowerPoint presentation. It’s slow, deliberate and rational.

Related: Think Slow and Other Tricks for Better Problem-Solving

Talking Back to Your Gut

To jumble up some body parts, you don’t want to take what your gut is telling you at face value. Instead you need to investigate what’s driving that first impression. Psychologist Bruce Pfau, Ph.D., is a New York-based senior partner at KPMG, one of the Big Four auditors, where he advises C-suite executives on human resources strategy and communications. “What we label a gut feeling is always based on a set of variables that we haven’t spent time articulating,” Pfau says. “Only when you bring those facts into the light of day can you analyze them objectively and dispassionately and move on to making a good decision.


“Your feelings aren’t random; they’re based on something that’s observable and measurable.”


If you’re considering forming a partnership with somebody but have a nebulous feeling of unease, Pfau suggests free-associating. “Let your mind start putting words to what it is about this person that’s making you uncomfortable. It can start with something vague. ‘I just have the feeling he’s not going to be a good partner.’ ”

Dig deeper. Ask yourself, What about him is making me feel that way? Does he seem too complacent? Too argumentative? Is it something in his body language? Something he said or the way he said it? It might be helpful to jot down notes or enlist someone else as a sounding board to guide your reflection. Then test your feelings against available data.


Go With Your Gut: The Science of Instinct

Your feelings aren’t random,” Pfau says. “They’re based on something that’s observable and measurable, but you can’t take reliable action until you start identifying what that is.” You might ultimately come to realize your reaction is actually rooted in something not entirely rational. Perhaps Joe is setting off alarms because something about him reminds you of Warren, the kid who bullied you in junior high school. Once you’ve made that connection, Pfau says, you can eliminate the discomfort from your assessment.

Decision-Making in the Real World

Larry Gadea is the founder and CEO of Envoy, a San Francisco-based company that helps businesses replace paper sign-in books with iPad-based visitor registration. “The tough part about being a CEO is the constant need to make decisions, oftentimes without the research and context that you need to take a proper, informed approach,” Gadea says. It’s taken him awhile to get used to that. Gadea is a data guy. He spent four years as a systems engineer at Google, where he says, “Everything was measurable. If the server took another 15 milliseconds processing a request, it could mean a loss of $50 million over the year.” Being an engineer, he says, “was all about making the perfect decision, not the good-enough decision.”

A few years ago, when Envoy was raising money, the company was in the fortunate position of having several interested investors. “They were all top tier, awesome, super-smart people who knew what’s up,” Gadea says. As always, he had done his homework, but the copious research he’d gathered on each investor wasn’t helping him move past indecision. So Gadea let his gut make the final call. “I asked myself, If I ever had to tell somebody bad news, who would help me?” he says. His intuition pointed to a clear winner: Chris Dixon, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz, a Menlo Park, California-venture capital firm. Dixon had, aptly enough, once launched a company called Hunch that was sold to eBay. “I really like Chris; we have a lot in common and we get along really well, so it turned out to be a great decision,” Gadea says, “If I had overanalyzed it, who knows what micro-optimization I might have gone with that would make things much less enjoyable.”

Go With Your Gut: The Science of Instinct

Related: Stop Overthinking It: 9 Ways to Make Decisions With Confidence

Despite his training as an engineer, Gadea was still connected to his “feeling” brain. For some people who are by nature deeply analytical, that can be a challenge. “Everyone has a preferred approach to decision-making based on personality type,” says Spetzler. “It’s important not to let our preference-based habits get in the way of solving the problem that needs to be solved.” Spetzler says his firm is hired to help clients make big strategy choices, such as whether they should spend $5 billion on an underwater deep-seas project amid geological, geopolitical and economic uncertainty. “If they make the wrong decision, they’ll never recover,” he says. “So people on my staff might spend months doing research and developing a decision tree that has thousands of branches.”

Well trained in System 2 thinking, analytical types can get stymied when it comes to making inconsequential decisions. “It’s always funny to watch some of my people deciding where to go to lunch,” Spetzler says. “They look at too many alternatives. They want to pick the single best place. They’re caught in the extreme opposite of intuitive processes, and it really slows them down. Our culture is a collaborative one, but at some point I have to say, ‘C’mon guys, it’s just lunch. Let’s go.’ ”

If this sounds like you, a couple of approaches can help speed up the less momentous decisions in your life. First ask yourself how much time you’re going to commit to making the decision: 10 minutes to choose where to go for happy hour drinks with colleagues; eight hours over the next week to pick a place for the holiday office party; two Saturday afternoons to research and test mattresses. Still caught up in indecision between an innerspring and memory foam? The gut feeling you have at the deadline can clarify your final pick.


“It’s good to have a bright analytical brain, but at the end of the day, the stomach is the smartest organ in the body.”


Gut Check

Julie Benezet is a lawyer, entrepreneur, former Amazon executive and now a leadership coach to top executives. “I always tell my clients it’s good to have a bright analytical brain, but at the end of the day, the stomach is the smartest organ in the body. It houses life experiences, values and inconvenient truths,” she says. When you’re wrestling with a decision, the message your gut is sending can get muffled by emotion or urgency. Ask yourself these questions so you can make the best use of your gut wisdom:

  1. Am I really paying attention to what my gut is telling me about a decision, or am I rushing to judgment to stop feeling anxious?
  2. Am I listening to my gut because I’m feeling lazy about supporting my feelings with facts, or do I really feel I know enough to make a call?
  3. If I sit with this gut feeling for a few minutes and allow my head to kick in, will I allow my gut feeling to change?
  4. Is my gut telling me what I believe to be true based on what I either know or can find out, or am I paying more attention to the truths of others?
  5. Do I know enough about the decision to be able to defend it beyond saying “Trust me,” if challenged by others?
  6. Is the information I am collecting to test my gut reaction causing my gut to become calm or is it giving it a flat or troubled feeling?

Finally Klein offers advice that might seem counterintuitive. When we have two hours to meet a deadline on reaching a decision, most of us will take care of other pressing business, like making essential calls or answering emails that require immediate attention. We want to clear the decks so we can focus single-mindedly on the pending decision, but that doesn’t allow our gut to work on the problem in the background. “You’re not giving yourself any time for incubation,” Klein says. “I’d suggest the reverse order. Immerse yourself in the project, and then take a timeout to deal with something else.” He says your subconscious will be “chewing on your decision” while you’ve shifted your priorities and just might provide the moment of aha clarity you need.

Related: Why Your Instincts Can Help You Achieve Your Goals


This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.