As an anxious person, I find the mantra “go with your gut” endlessly frustrating. What’s so trustworthy about my gut instinct, which has, at various times, convinced me I’m dying of brain cancer, or about to get on an airplane doomed to crash, or destined to be alone forever? My therapist has had to remind me many times over that my so-called instincts have been wrong before and will be wrong again. But I’ve remained somewhat convinced that there is a “real” gut instinct somewhere beneath all my fake ones, and if only I knew how to access it, I would finally be perfectly wise, centered, and calm.
Unfortunately for me, a new study suggests this is probably not the case, and I am forever doomed to second-(and third-, and fourth-) guessing my every choice. In their study, researchers attempted to examine and compare the intuitive decision-making abilities of anxious, neutral, and optimistic people. More than a hundred participants were randomly assigned to each of these three groups, and “inducted” into the corresponding mood by viewing a series of emotionally coded sentences and images. For example, participants in the optimism group read: “The affection of those we love makes us feel particularly safe and confident. There is always someone who loves us,” and were then shown a picture of a smiling young couple with a shark mascot. (Huh.) Those in the anxious group read: “Safety is not guaranteed neither in our neighborhoods nor in our own homes,” followed by a picture of a man with his arm hooked around a woman’s neck. I’m anxious just reading about it.
Once the mood was set, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to assess their tendency to make intuitive decisions, and how effectively they did so. While the researchers found that the decision-making abilities of the positive and the neutral mood groups were relatively unaffected by their moods, the anxious group showed a significantly reduced ability to use their intuition. My therapist, as usual, is right: if you’re anxious, your so-called gut is pretty much useless.
The researchers hypothesized that anxiety’s effects on our decision-making is damaging for several reasons: Anxiety makes us risk-averse, pessimistic, and less confident — all qualities which make us likelier to choose what we perceive as the most safe, routine, and unchallenging decision.
In some cases, anxiety can also effectively paralyze us, resulting in no decision made at all. Using one’s intuition, the researchers argue, requires confidence and trust in oneself. If anxious people don’t have that confidence and trust, they may be more likely to ignore subtle emotional or bodily cues which indicate a “hunch.” But any anxious person knows it goes beyond that — many of us deal with what could be considered “cues” and “hunches” all the time: a racing heart, elevated heartbeat, sweating, weird twinges and tingles. For many anxious people, the psychosomatic symptom possibilities are endless, and only infrequently indicate that something is actually wrong. In many cases, it’s wiser for us to ignore these “signs” and symptoms than to take them seriously; I hate to think of how many dollars I’ve wasted on co-pays in my lifetime, visiting an urgent-care doctor with what I think is a life-threatening symptom only to be told there is nothing wrong with me, except that I can’t stop thinking something is wrong with me.
As the study authors point out, the existing research on anxiety’s effect on intuitive decision-making is still quite limited. As anxiety (and depression) continue to grow more prevalent, those of us who suffer from it can only hope that’s likely to change, so that one day we, too, might understand what it means to (successfully) think with our guts.