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I have to.

Way back in 2001 I wrote, “Popular culture has it that our brains should defer to our guts, despite conclusive anatomical evidence that guts digest food while brains digest information, and the success of the scientific method demonstrating that facts and logic are superior to instinct.”

I’ve been on something of a crusade about the dangers of trusting your gut ever since.

Not as way back … five days ago as I’m publishing this missive … President Trump disagreed, saying, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”

Give President Trump his due. His statement appears to be correct. His gut does seem to tell him more than anybody else’s brain does.

Nor is he alone, nor is the purpose of this little epistle to ridicule our current president. He isn’t the point. He just illustrates it.

The point is that “trusting our “guts” … our instincts and pattern-matching abilities … over the hard work of collecting and interpreting evidence continues to be a popular method for making important decisions.

To be fair, there are situations in which this effortless alternative truly is superior. Take, for example, how we identify people we know: We look at their faces, listen to their voices, and we’re done.

And outside the realm of doppelganger-oriented horror movies, and except for the occasional identical twin, we’re generally correct.

This works just fine until there’s a need to prove it, as when we contact our bank over the phone. Imagine a financial institution that relies on innards-based customer identification and authentication: Instead of providing your date of birth, last four digits of your social security number, and the make and model of the first car you ever owned, you schmooze a bit, discover you’re both Cubs fans, and further discover you agree that had Ernie Banks faced the Cubs pitching staff he’d have broken every batting record in the game.

Then you say, “I wonder if you could help me. I’d like to transfer everything in all of my accounts with you to my bank in the Cayman Islands.”

“No problem,” replies the helpful newbie customer service staffer. “You sound like a trustworthy person. My gut tells me you’re okay. Now what were those account numbers?”

Clearly, when the subject is customer identification, multifactor authentication … using forensically defensible and auditable techniques for validating identities … is a whole lot more reliable.

Second example: You’re now an IT executive. You task one of your staff — call him Derek Duodenum — to lead the selection of a replacement for your company’s aging ERP system.

Imagine Duodenum considers his gut to be just as presidential as that of our current POTUS. It’s the team’s kickoff meeting. Duodenum starts it off with these words: “I trust my gut, and my gut tells me SpleenWorthy is the right answer for our company.”

The question: Just because he trusts his gut, does that mean you should trust his gut?

Of course not. Among its many disadvantages, beyond being no more reliable than a dart board or Ouija Board, trust-your-gut-based decision-making precludes consensus, because it leaves no room for discussion. Everyone’s answer to the question of why they reached the decision they did is the same — they trusted their guts — and everyone involved thinks their gut is more brilliant than anyone else’s gut.

The only proposition they do agree on is that all of their colons are more perceptive than anyone else’s frontal lobes.

Which is why, when you inform Duodenum that you’re removing him from the ERP selection effort, your reason isn’t that your gut tells you he’s the wrong person for the job.

You explain that you rely on evidence and logic for making decisions. The evidence demonstrates he’s incapable of making evidence-based decisions, so logically you have no other alternative.

Let him deal with the recursion on his own time. Take yours to scratch your head, trying to figure out how he ended up in a position of influence in the first place.

Am I suggesting you should ignore your metaphorical gut when it metaphorically speaks to you?

Not at all. Quite the opposite, you should pay close attention. What’s commonly called your gut is more properly characterized as the voice of your accumulated experience. To the extent your experience is both extensive and relevant, you should definitely pay attention to it.

Should you believe it? Probably not.

Listening isn’t the same as unquestioning acceptance, so when your gut speaks to you, that should begin your inquiry, not finish it.

Comments (14)

  • I was a new hire for a software VAR who was getting ready to implement a new inventory management/ordering system for local wholesale firm. I heard a few things that told me we weren’t ready to flip the switch yet, but I was new and kept my mouth shut. Turned out they were NOT ready yet, and we wound up hosing their inventory, and pulling a week or two of 24/7 days on-site trying to untangle the mess that had been made. So.. now… if I see any red flags on a premature cut over, I have this ONE evidential story to share with the client/customer “You are not ready yet – and it isn’t just my gut — let me show you the red flags, and tell you a story of what happened once when they were ignored.” So – yeah – if you gut says “No” you need to dig deeper, and dig fast.

  • For a long time I was a “gut” person. Usually, it was in the middle of a project and my gut just knew something was “off.” Of course leadership didn’t like me tapping brakes because of that last fish taco, and “I told you so” later didn’t work because … well … I couldn’t tell them so – not specifically. My gut was a well trained worrier – and often correctish – if only it could have been more articulate.

    Fast forward – I still trust my gut when it says something is off – but what I do next is take some time to think the problem – connect brain to gi-tract – “what would make me feel better?”

    I’ve found that my gut continues to have an uncanny sense of project risk. And I have trained my higher functions to translate that icky feeling into solid observations that we as a team can ruminate on and – in the end – prevent or reduce impacts.

    No one knows who the real brains of my risk management skill is – people think I just work alot.

  • I understand your point Bob, but where do you separate brain and gut when it comes to experience? The brain and experience are a predictive model that is always running. Over time some people become very capable of predicting things based on very little information. In other words their experience drives them – I tend to call that instinct or even gut.

    When Ernie Banks is at the plate and he just knows a change-up is on the way, he did it in a split second by guessing or well his gut/experience.

    Maybe I didn’t connect all of your dots?

    • There’s a limit to how much I can squeeze into one of these pieces and still keep them tight. To answer: Yes, there are circumstances when any decision right now is better than the best decision made too late to matter.

      Then you listen to the voice of your experience and accept its conclusions, whether you’re facing a pitcher or … sorry, I’m only coming up with sports metaphors at the moment.

      In any event, except in a crisis I stand by my conclusion at the end: Listening to the voice of your experience … your gut … should be where your thinking begins, not where your decision happens.

  • I’m reminded of another Republican POTUS who said (in Russian , no less!): Trust, but verify.

  • Ehrlich’s Law: People pay way too much attention to things that are easily quantified.

    This is where “gut” decisions get some traction, as an antidote to our bias to undervalue information that is difficult to quantify. Don’t “trust your gut”, but also do not ignore information just because you cannot quantify it.

    If “gut” says this is important, but I can’t find an appropriate measure of why, it means there may be a reward for inventing better metrics.

    • And as Albert Einstein said (or was credited with saying), what counts can’t always be counted, and what can be counted doesn’t always count.

      • “… you’ll know to trust them, because they will also have a solid track record of achievement in their field.”

        Well, not really. One reason: Often, the folks you describe often extend their faith in their guts beyond their field of expertise. Think Shockley and his shoddy work on IQs.

        Another reason, closely related to the first: Overconfidence on the part of the gut-truster, making their decisions the result of ego and bias, even when their past decisions were based on something more solid.

        One more: Disciplines change and evolve. The experience on which gut-trusters rely is based on the past and how things used to be, not on how they are and are going to be.

  • I had missed POTUS’ latest gem – thank you! And as one seems to be barely on speaking terms with my gut, I also appreciated the rest of your column; going with my gut almost invariably came out wrong…

  • Glad you had the guts to raise this topic.

    We have different core analysis styles, so for about 25% of the population, going with their gut is right and extremely accurate, IF…
    – Their general style is the natural attention-grabbing self-promoter.
    – They’ve worked in their field on expertise for 20 years or more, mentored by folks with a demonstrated record of success.
    – They’ve developed a system for understanding their field that “covers all of the bases” in their chosen field of expertise. The the secret of their success is that their system really is very much fact based and tested.

    THEN, they will be right, even if they can’t or won’t explain to you why. But, you’ll know to trust them, because they will also have a solid track record of achievement in their field.

    Trump has a solid record…of swindling others. He’s been sued over 1,400 times for fraud but never gone to jail, so that is where his expertise has shown to be.

    Even though trusting our gut is wrong, even in situations where we have real experience and understanding, for most us, Trump spoke the truth…about himself.

  • Clever and thought-provoking piece. It’s tempting to skip the “hard work of collecting and interpreting evidence” that is required to make a convincing argument, to gain consensus, and to find the best possible solution based on the best available information. Many professions demand the hard work of building a solid case, before attaining the desired outcome (ex. Trial Lawyers, Effective Leaders, Military Planners, Debate Teams, and Sales Reps).

    In preparing for a foreign language competency exam, I’ve recently found that the test is much more about building a convincing, fact-based argument than just knowing how to translate the words. This style of exam would be diffucult for me in English, my mother tongue. My instructor said that the test format is “très Français” — all French students learn to think like this.

    Perhaps our tendency to “think with our gut” is the comfortable American approach to decision-making. We can afford to get it wrong sometimes.

  • I think your statement that “your gut is more properly characterized as the voice of your accumulated experience” is very important. Experience is information; it’s just not easily quantified information. Defined in this way, “trusting your gut” can be important in decision making, if only to supplement more quantifiable information, and assuming you actually have experience in the field in question.

    I am the IT department for a small business, and I “trust my gut” on decisions every day, especially small ones. If we are having two problems at the moment, I must quickly decide which to work on first. I base this on impact to the business, but I don’t have time to analyze this and say “problem 1 will cost us $X and problem 2 will cost us $Y”. Instead, I do a quick “analysis” in my head and decide that problem 1 is less critical than problem 2, so I start work on problem 2. Perhaps this is still fact-based analysis, it’s just done quickly in my head rather in a way I can show it to someone, but I consider this part of “gut-based” decision making. And in this case, even starting with the less critical problem is still better than delaying all work until I calculate which is most critical.

    For larger decisions, such as which new system to purchase, I gather all of the relevant facts I can, but often some information is still missing. For example, costs are usually easy to quantify, but risks in particular are often difficult to pin down precisely. When comparing alternatives, it would be nice to know that alternative “A” has a 10% chance of failure while alternative “B” has a 5% chance, but that information is rarely available, at least within time and money limits. I fill in these information gaps as best I can based on experience. And my “gut” can be a good check on the facts. If all of the facts point one way, but my experience says something else, it is a good indicator to look deeper or double check the facts. The facts may still be correct and point the right way to go, but it’s better to make sure and not press ahead ignoring the internal red flags being raised.

    Finally, I think there is a reason that most organizations pay more for experienced people and have experienced people as the decision makers. It’s because their “gut” has more information accumulated than others and so we trust their guts. People who make decisions while ignoring quantifiable facts or without experience in the relevant field aren’t trusting their gut so much as showing their ignorance (examples will remain nameless)!

  • I don’t think we should ever blindly trust our gut in important decisions, but our gut can be an indication that our conscious brain is missing something and that we should search for more information. I’ve just been reading the classic The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Sometimes experienced leaders who have a mental model that includes the circular systems perspective described in this book somehow “know” that something is being missed, but can’t exactly describe why they feel that way. Open dialogue and genuine listening can help bring added information into the light.

  • Psychology currently has a replication problem with many experiments. They are redoing them all and about half fail. Related to this article is that there is a betting system set up (a Delphi poll) to gamble on which experiments will replicate and which will fail. The gamblers are almost always right–as a group.

    So going with a wise group on “gut” instinct is probably the same thing as paying attention to facts and relating those to actual experience. If Mary says Let’s do lunch but something always comes up and a year later she’s still saying it, well here’s a clue–lunch ain’t gonna happen.

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