Trust your gut: How instinct can lead to faster and better decisions

When it comes to decision-making, knowledge is power. But what about knowledge that comes from an unconventional source? That pit in your stomach each time you meet with a potential business partner. The frisson of excitement that accompanies a sudden insight into a design problem. These gut reactions can convey valuable information about potential choices—in a fraction of the time it takes to consciously analyze your options.

Long accepted in our personal lives, gut feelings are increasingly being embraced in the work world. Savvy CEOs like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have famously credited instinct for their ground-breaking business decisions. According to psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, roughly 50% of decisions made at large international companies are ultimately gut decisions. And in many cases, instinct-based choices outperform complex calculations.

So what are gut instincts exactly? And how can you harness their speed and power when faced with tough decisions at work?

The brain in your belly

Trusting your gut may seem like magical thinking, but science shows that gut instincts actually come from a “second brain” known as the enteric nervous system, or ENS. Composed of millions of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract, the ENS can recognize feelings such as stress or excitement—regardless of whether you’re consciously aware of them.

Communication between the gut and the brain is a two-way street. The ENS receives both conscious and subconscious knowledge from the mind, and transmits it’s own positive or negative responses via emotional charged sensations known as “somatic markers.” Butterflies, clenching, tingling, sweating—how you respond physically to a real or hypothetical situation speaks volumes about your true feelings.

Such internal clues are invaluable for rapid decision-making—if you can pick up on them. In one study, stock traders were monitored for interoceptive awareness—the ability to tune into their own internal signals. High sensitivity to bodily sensations was directly correlated with better performance in a risky decision-making environment. The most successful traders could literally listen to their hearts.

When gut instincts work best

Given how quickly gut decisions can be made, it’s tempting to apply intuition across the board. But some situations are better suited to instinctual action than others.

Subjective, open-ended decisions—like choosing between layouts or deciding whether to try a new approach—are ideal for a quick, internal thumbs up or down. More rational problems, such as crafting a watertight legal argument or selecting software to address specific workflow issues, tend to benefit from objective analysis.

Where gut instinct really shines: certain snap decisions under pressure. In one study, subjects given a fraction of a second to generate an answer to a visual problem were 95% correct, compared to 70% accuracy when allowed more time. While the rational mind tended to overthink or distort information, the gut instantly and unconsciously synthesized the information to produce the correct answer. Says researcher Dr. Li Zhaoping, “Falling back on our inbuilt involuntary subconscious processes for certain tasks is actually more effective.”

When deciding when to trust your gut, bear in mind that the accuracy of your instincts is closely linked to your level of experience. The reason? Innate wisdom often stems from pattern recognition. From ER doctors to racecar drivers, professionals who make split-second, instinctive decisions are unconsciously comparing external cues with a vast internal database of past experiences. Which means trusting your gut can be valuable within your area of expertise—and foolhardy if you’re wielding a scalpel for the first time.

How to incorporate instinct at work

Make room for gut checks: Combat the tendency toward over-analysis by blocking off time for gut-level reflection. Ideally, a walk or other calming change of scenery can help you switch up your thought patterns and focus on internal cues. But even if you’re in a heated meeting or on deadline, a quick five-minute break to consult your instincts can avert disaster—or yield a time-saving breakthrough.

Be aware of bias: While your gut benefits from access to unconscious knowledge, the unconscious can also harbor plenty of inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes. Avoiding these biases means rigorously examining your instincts for personal prejudices and distortions. Impossible? Not so, says Dr. Wim De Neys, whose research shows that people are aware of when their instincts are based on stereotypes. Which makes the problem of bias less about cluelessness as the failure to override faulty instincts—a mistake that you can choose to avoid.

Combine feelings with facts: Gut decisions can free you from the quagmire of analysis paralysis, but instinct actually works best in tandem with logic and reasoning. According to Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School, successful organizations must be equally comfortable applying gut instinct and analysis, mixing leaps of faith with careful research. The brain and gut may make an odd couple, but by joining forces, they maximize strengths and shore up weaknesses, for better outcomes overall.

Keep practicing: Research shows that the more frequently someone incorporates subconscious information into their decisions, the better they become at using intuition. Each time you tune into your inner voice, you pick up more of its nuances and better appreciate its insights and limits. Before long, your gut becomes as familiar as an old friend—one you know when to consult and when to ignore.

So give your gut a chance to weigh in at work. Chances are you’ll add speed and confidence to your decision-making and produce better results. Rather than sourcing information solely from your analytical mind, you’ll be tapping into a vast wellspring of unconscious knowledge and emotional insight. And that’s powerful.

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