Donuts or abs? A lustful affair or a wholesome relationship? Skinny jeans or comfort? Life is full of decisions, many of which we get wrong. But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if we told you there was a scientific way to tell when your gut is right, and when it’s just hankering for something double-glazed and sinful?
As a recent BBC Future report stated, “We are often told to go with the first answer that pops into our head, but the evidence suggests we might want to be careful about which intuitions we trust.”
So far so non-committal. But here’s where it gets interesting: “When instant answers just appear to pop into our minds… behavioural economist[s] refer to this as ‘System 1’ or fast thinking. This contrasts with the slower, more considered ‘System 2’ thinking, where we actively consider our options before coming to a conclusion.”
So then, if you master vacillating between these two techniques, you could eat your doughnuts and have your abs too, right? Sort of. The BBC says: “Intuition tends to get a bad reputation as something that’s flaky and based on no evidence. [But is] a careful analysis of all the options… more likely to give us the right answer? Not necessarily.”
“Our gut instincts are not always as random as they seem. They can be based on a rapid appraisal of the situation. We might not always realise it, but the brain is constantly comparing our current situation with our memories of previous situations. So when a decision feels intuitive, it might in fact be based on years of experience.”
Great: but that still doesn’t solve our doughnut dilemma. What might, however, is the next BBC observation, which is that “the problem with fast thinking is… dozens of different cognitive biases… we tend to be over-optimistic; we prefer simple solutions; we notice and remember information that confirms what we already think; and we favour continuing down paths in we’ve already invested time or money in.”
In other words: if your gut instinct feels too good to be true, it probably is. Likewise, if it feels gut-wrenching, it could be right (yeah, it’s brutal to break up with your deadbeat partner, but when you look back at that choice in 10 years you will be glad you made it).
This applies to job interviews too. As the BBC reports, even though “Many of our own biases come into play, and the people who we really like and ‘feel’ will be just right [and] the people most like ourselves” end up getting the job (rather than the most qualified candidate), there are still times when fast thinking serves us well and can even be logical.
“Some people are better at making intuitive judgements than others. The problem is that a meta-analysis of studies on this has shown that we are not very good at judging the veracity of our intuitions.”
In other words: unless your gut has a track record of being right, it’s always worth assessing a situation coldly. Ask yourself: could any cognitive biases be sending me astray? What are the arguments for the other option? Do I have real expertise in this area? Am I rushing into a decision just to get it over with? Could I just wait to see what happens next?
“It’s not your initial instincts about the answer that you should stick with, but your instincts for your confidence in that answer,” (BBC).
So even if we don’t all have the fast-twitch decision fibres of Ragnar Lothbrok or Leroy Jethro Gibbs, we can all learn to be a little bit better.