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.