Trust your instincts?



In the words of Oprah Winfrey - "Follow your instincts – it’s where true wisdom manifests itself". Trust your instincts – intuition doesn’t lie! But the fact is that intuition does lie, and it can get you into trouble, and science can prove it.

There are only two possible outcomes that come from trusting your instincts – either they are right or they are wrong. Because of this at best, trusting your instincts has a 50 / 50 chance of being the right decision. The fact is anyone who thinks that intuition is a substitute for reason is indulging in a risky delusion

There is no doubt that the mind is a marvellous processor of information. Without its continual stream of calculations and analysis we would not be able to function. But it is just as true that it is an imperfect processor prone to errors and biases.

In fact there are three very good reasons that we shouldn’t trust our intuition or go with our gut without further analysis. Firstly our gut can say contradictory things. Secondly good judgement comes from mistakes which ironically come from bad judgement and finally and possibly most importantly, our instincts are subject to something neuroscience calls ‘cognitive bias’!

Listening to our gut can get confusing as often our instincts can give opposite meanings. The fact is we often feel fear just before we do something that we really want to do. There are many stories of a bride getting cold feet just before going down the aisle, yet going on to have a long and happy marriage. We can also feel great attraction to things that are bad for us – for example the many chocolate eggs at easter. The reason for this conflicting message is that our body has trouble distinguishing between fear and excitement. It is then up to the brain to determine what our instincts are trying to tell us, and as mentioned earlier, our brain can easily make mistakes! As speaker Scott Berken states – “To be able to say “I’ve sorted through my instincts and here’s what I’ve decided” is a far better path towards good decisions.”

And sometimes we do make good ‘gut’ decisions. However many of those good decisions have resulted from learning from our past mistakes – our prior bad decisions! We learn from our mistakes, which helps our future selves make better decisions. If as a child we put our hand on a hot stove, our instincts in the future will be to not touch hot stoves. This can be extrapolated to more complex decisions – but the process is the same. Without making poor decisions, we can learn to make good ones.

But the greatest impairment of all to trusting our instincts is the fact that humans are all subject to cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases operate in all of our decision-making proceses from life and death disasters to mundane day-to-day reasoning and decision-making.

So what is cognitive bias? It is an error in thinking or judgment, where inferences about a situation may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own "subjective reality" from their perceptions. Neuroscientists tell us that Cognitive Bias originates in the primitive and emotional part of our brain known as the “Limbic System”.

Our Limbic System can be seen as a bit of “Frenemy”. For those of us that are not teenage girls or don’t live with one, a Frenemy is somebody, or in this case a ‘something’, that we can rely upon as a “Friend” in some situations, but is an “Enemy” to us in others. A “fairweather friend”.

The Limbic system of our brain wires itself from birth to chemically reward or punish us for our responses to certain external stimulus, mainly perceived threats that demand quick and proven reactions that need to be faster than more deliberate thinking would allow.

It’s from this part of the brain that we get our instinctive “fight, flight or freeze” responses. Before you have time to think “oh that’s a big Brown Snake I’m about to step on” the Limbic System has processed the potential threat, bypassed the rational brain and given you the immediate response for “snake” - whether that be flight, fight or freeze (personally I am a big fan of flight!)

All very fast and potentially life saving stuff, but it can also be an absolute disaster when that same Limbic System gets triggered and involved in what should be more “rational” responses and decisions to solve complex problems.

The Limbic System cannot discriminate between the snake and other ‘threatening’ situations such as someone aggravating us on the football field, being too information and task overloaded or being tired and emotional when under pressure.

That fast and intuitive part of the brain that is designed to save our life in some situations, and mostly does a great job, can also take short cuts under certain circumstances and taint complex problem solving with responses that are too emotional and simplistic.

And that is “cognitive bias”. Emotional and ill-thought out biases that can override the rational brain, and cause us to ignore important facts, and in the heat of the moment favour, our ingrained biases no matter how obvious it might seem later - to have been a really stupid thing to do.

This all happens sub consciously, and so fast, that it takes a lot to beat it. It is our gut reaction in play!

Humans will always react more emotionally - want to follow their instincts - when under pressure, it’s the speed with which individuals and teams can catch themselves doing it that matters.

Neuroscientists liken intuition it to a Mahut Riding an Elephant, or a Jockey Riding a Horse. The rider might be smarter and more rationale, but if the stronger and more intuitive beast - that is intuition - takes control in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to get it back under control.

So next time you are passing that roulette table and have an urge to put $100 dollars on 34 – remember; Stop - consider your emotions, learn from your mistakes and take the time to analyse all the information you have at hand.

You might just save yourself $100!