We hear it all the time:
Trust your gut.
Most of us subscribe to the belief that we should always trust our gut instincts and when we don’t, we’ll wind up regretting it.
Like the time you kicked yourself for ignoring the hunch that told you to turn left, take the earlier flight or ask that cute guy/gal out on a date. Or maybe on a cloudy day, you went back to the car for your umbrella and then wound up in the elevator with the recruiter you’d been hoping to introduce yourself to.
It wasn’t an accident. It was your gut instinct.
And as everyone knows, your gut knows best.
Well, maybe not. Recent research proves your gut may in fact be a liar.
A non-sciencey explanation
Gerd Gigerenzer is one of the modern day stars of the gut instinct corner of psychology. He says that a gut instinct is a feeling that comes quickly into a person’s consciousness, from a source that they cannot identify.
But although we tend to think that gut feelings appear out of thin air, a gut reaction is actually based on a variety of external cues that we are usually unaware of.
Here’s an example of how this external cues thing works:
Not so long ago, I found my ideal job description.
Not only was the job itself exactly what I was looking for, but the company’s office was located right next door to my yoga studio and two blocks from my favorite restaurant. The benefits made me giddy with glee. Perfect, right?
But when I got to the interview, something just didn’t feel right.
Was it the way the CEO smiled at me? Was it the awful fluorescent lighting in the conference room?
I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that from the moment I walked in the door, my gut instinct immediately started screaming RUN!
So I followed that Trust your gut advice and turned the job down.
At the time, I didn’t have a solid explanation for my decision. But after bumping into a friend at a party later that year, it all started to make sense.
We don’t know what we know
My friend reminded me about a conversation she and I had three years prior, in which she’d told me about the difficult experience she had while working with the CEO who’d interviewed me.
They were assigned to the same team for a charitable project and because of his temper and unwillingness to consider anyone else’s ideas, the whole thing was hugely stressful for everyone involved.
As she reminded me of all this, I then remembered feeling very unsettled during my interview by the CEO’s multiple questions about my ability to handle conflict in the workplace. His persistence on this issue left me with the impression there was a lot of turmoil happening in their company. My friend’s experience with him reinforced this theory.
Standing with my friend at the cocktail party, all of these little pieces started to come together. But back on the day of my interview, none of this information crossed my conscious mind.
Even though I couldn’t really explain why I was so hesitant at the time, my brain knew exactly why it was pushing me to get out of there.
So when we have enough external cues, our intuition really does know best.
But what about situations where we have zero experience and very little information? In those cases, our brains have no external cues to work with, so how can they generate a gut reaction we can trust?
Knowledge + Experience (then Instinct)
While on the promotion circuit for his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell said instinctive reactions in the absence of experience are worse than useless; they’re dangerous.
Here’s an example to illustrate his point:
Let’s say you’re an IT consultant who wakes up one morning with a gut feeling that because you love to bake so much, you should immediately quit your job and use your retirement fund to open a bakery.
If your concept of a bakery owner is simply someone who bakes delicious treats, I would suggest (and I bet Malcolm would agree) that this particular gut instinct is one you don’t want to act on. At least not just yet.
While your gut reaction may be “Whoopee! I’m finally following my passion for biscotti,” in order for your business to be a success, you’re going to need customers who are willing to buy your baked goods.
Have you done any market research to figure out if your community might respond well to a bakery?
Have you ever worked in a bakery? If not, have you interviewed and potentially shadowed someone who does?
Have any bakery owners written books about their profession? Have you read these books?
Are there any seminars or conferences you can attend?
Have you scoured YouTube for videos about the baking industry?
Consume as much information as you can. Suck it all into your brain and then take a nap. Go for a run. Read a book. Play hide and seek with your kids.
Then (and only then) should you ask yourself the famous question:
What does my gut say?
Your second instinct might still be telling you to use your retirement money to open a bakery. And if that’s what you really want to do, I’m sure not standing in your way.
But in the second scenario, you gave your brain a whole bunch of the external cues it needs to come up with a well-informed answer.
In the first scenario, your brain had virtually no material to work with. Your gut was advising you based on limited assumptions about what being a bakery owner entails.
It’s common sense: If you only have a hammer, can you really build a solid house? But if you have a whole toolbox at your disposal, you’re much more likely to succeed, right?
Big and Small
Even if you’re not making a big life-changing decision like quitting your job, many smaller choices will also produce better results if you get your external cues lined up first.
For instance, let’s say you have a great idea for a new project at work. As much as you love the concept, it probably won’t go anywhere unless the project scope lines up with the priorities and values of your colleagues, senior management and other stakeholders.
So, before you pitch it, spend some time getting to know the decision-makers, and ask yourself how they would see the project from their perspective. In a situation like this, you can trust your gut instinct, not because it’s all-knowing, but because those instincts are extrapolating based on experience.
The Bottom Line
In the end, your gut isn’t a mystical guru meditating on a mountaintop and passing down the word of God. It’s a nerd in a basement, surrounded by boxes of papers, studying day and night so she can give the CEO some answers.
You’re the CEO. The boxes of papers are your experience. And if you want the little nerd down in the basement to give you the right answers, you’d better make sure you’re feeding her the right information.
If you’re not, then listening to her isn’t smart. It’s stupid.
So get some experience.
Give your little nerd some solid data to work from.
Then, once she has had some time to synthesize it, ask her for answers.
Only then should you listen. Because at that point, chances are the little lady knows what she’s talking about.
Annika Martins video blogs about entrepreneurship and not taking ourselves so seriously at http://www.annikamartins.com. She likes jalapenos and counter-intuitive wisdom, like The 10 things no one tells you about being a woman entrepreneur.