Recently, a bout of garden-variety existentialism led to me asking too many people for advice about my relationship. How are other people so sure when they want to get married? How do they stay sure of it? If they’re not always sure, then why do they act like it on Instagram? When a good number of my friends’ responses included some form of “you just know,” or “go with your gut,” I became obsessed with this question: How do I know if what I’m thinking is coming from my brain or my gut? And if there is such a thing as gut-level instinct separate from my rational brain, how do I know that I can really trust it?
My first problem, it seems, is thinking of these two modes as a binary, said Reid Hastie, who studies decision-making at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “I actually think it’s better to describe them as a continuum,” says Hastie, author of the 2009 book Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. “Almost any thought process we’re interested in is a combination of the two.”
Hastie gives me a memory test as an example: He asks me to provide my mother’s maiden name. When I answer, he asks how I “found” that information. “I don’t know,” I say. “It just came to me.”
“Something unconscious looked through a lot of information in your memory,” says Hastie. “But there’s a little analytic part of it, too, because you had to interpret my question.” Meaning, I used my brain and my gut. Though most of our decisions are made using some combination of these two processes, there is a way to distinguish them. “The general principle is, the more conscious it is, the more reportable it is, the more analytic it is,” says Hastie.
Some social scientists argue that the power of so-called gut-level thinking can be a bit overstated. “I think [the expression ‘thinking with your gut’] is an abuse of the word thinking,” says Richard Thaler, the behavioral economist and author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Certainly there are situations that call for reflex over analysis; when someone throws a ball at you, for one. But in most cases, says Thaler, human beings should want to make use of all the decision-making tools available to them.
“The kind of active thinking that only humans are really capable of is what our modern brain is good at, and turning it off is turning off our most powerful intellectual resource,” he says. This doesn’t mean that feelings or instincts shouldn’t play a role at all, but that they shouldn’t necessarily take precedence over one’s rational mind, either. “Suppose you’re looking at buying a new car, and there’s one that makes your heart go pitter-patter, and your brain is telling you that it’s not big enough to fit your family,” says Thaler. “I think you should probably listen to your brain.”
As an anxious person, I have had my so-called instincts lead me astray on countless occasions. My gut, for example, has convinced me a small, benign bump in my skin is a tumor, that my subway train is being held for reasons much more sinister than we’re being told, that my plane is going to crash because it’s raining and I saw this in a movie once. These are all things I have truly felt, in my bones, to be true. And yet not one of these instincts became fact. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that when I ask my therapist how I can locate my actual, useful instincts among the swirling sewage of my many needless worries, she says, “You can’t.” For anxious people, she tells me, one’s instincts are often simply too misleading to heed.
Daniel Freeman, a psychiatrist who’s studied the link between “gut feelings” and paranoia, says anxious people are more likely to give their gut too much credit. People with anxiety often rely on “a kind of safety-first approach: a reliance on fearful hunches, with less measured reevaluation,” says Freeman. “This may keep fearful ideas in place, since the negative thoughts will less often be fully examined and put to the test.”
Just because you feel as though your surroundings are dangerous doesn’t necessarily mean they are. The sense of doom I used to feel each time I entered an airport wasn’t foreshadowing, like I thought; it was a fear that grew larger and larger the more I left it alone and unchallenged. It was only when I realized my “hunch” my plane would crash didn’t mean anything that I was able to (mostly) get over my fear of flying. “In essence,” says Freeman, “the trouble happens when we get stuck in negative troubling conclusions, without the ability to pause and see them for what they are: thoughts.” Our “instincts” may tell us we’re going to fail or fall gravely ill, but that doesn’t make them right. Using our more rational and intellectual capacities brings us closer to the fullest truth — we might fail, and we’ll definitely die, but (probably) not today.
But all that thinking and careful decision-making is exhausting, and a little boring, and so unromantic, which is probably part of the reason why “think with your gut” is trotted out so frequently. We want to believe in a power higher than our own brains, something within us that makes better choices for us than our rational minds ever could — particularly when it comes to bigger decisions like picking a partner, or buying a house, or having children (or not). But none of the behavioral scientists and psychologists I spoke to said anything to indicate it’s possible (or prudent) to make a decision with one’s gut alone. As with so much else in life, it’s about moderation. Below are some pointers to help you find the most appropriate spot along that brain-gut continuum.
Talk to someone else about your decision. Particularly if a decision is giving you anxiety (which is, in turn, further clouding your decision-making), enlist the help of a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. “An enormous amount of value comes through talking through the decisions with someone else,” says Hastie. “Even if the other person can’t give you advice, just vocalizing [your thoughts] does move you toward analytic thinking, as well as calming down.” If you’re weighing a proposal, for example, and you hear yourself rationalizing either decision to a friend, you might learn you have more of a gut feeling about your reply than you realized.
Ask yourself if you have any idea what you’re talking about. Learning and experience strengthen our instincts. If you’ve been trained in something (say, sports), your gut instinct is going to be worth a lot more than that of someone without training. “If you just use intuition for something you haven’t had that training for, it’s going to be kind of haphazard,” says Hastie.
It’s important to remember that just because you have an instinct doesn’t mean it’s good. “Certainly, we can all think of lots of situations where we were [thinking with our gut], which was a really bad idea,” says Thaler.
“Like having another drink.” If your gut is telling you to do something, you might want to give a second to thinking about how wisely your gut has advised you in similar situations in the past.
Reexamine your instincts from time to time. Likewise, just because a thought process has become automated or reflexive for you doesn’t mean it should stay that way. “Somebody who frequents a fast-food restaurant may have a standard thing they order, and will order it more or less without thinking,” says Thaler. He’s talking about cheeseburgers, but the same pattern can be true of bigger things like relationships, too. Maybe something in your life is both habitual and chosen, and that’s okay, but it’s worth periodically reassessing those processes that feel innate. Once in a while, ask yourself whether it’s still what you really want.
Make a list, then see how you feel. There are a lot of decisions many people make for which there is little to no practical training available; choosing (or staying with) a mate is perhaps most common among them. In cases where you don’t even know how to start thinking about something the right way, Hastie suggests a sort of top-down approach, brain to gut. “My personal view is that trying to be analytic first makes your intuition smarter,” he says. “I think if you’re trying to decide what house to buy or who to marry, I think you should try to make lists of pros and cons. I think you should try to order them by how important they are. I think you should systematically and consciously try to do that. But then, when you’re all done with that, go with your intuition. Only after you’ve tried to be analytic.”
Don’t think of your gut as a force outside of, or greater than, your brain; think of it as a supplement. Proceed with caution. But not too much. There, easy!