Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

When To Go With Your Gut

Whether you are recruiting a new colleague, naming a product, or planning an investment, there are no easy decisions. Should you analyze the options slowly and systematically, or stop thinking so hard and just go with your gut?

Guidance from psychology literature offers up a tangle of contradictions. On the one hand, there are many examples of our flawed intuitions. Consider this simple puzzle from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast Thinking Slow:

“Together, a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Don’t think too hard, just go with your gut. If you think the ball costs 10 cents, you’re wrong, but you’re not alone. Most people make this error if they follow their intuition. But if you analyze the problem more deeply and deliberately, you’ll see the ball can’t cost 10 cents, because we know the bat costs a dollar more, and that would mean the total price was $1.20 (10 cents for the ball + $1.10 for the bat).

The correct answer is the ball costs 5 cents.

This simple problem illustrates the pitfalls of not thinking hard enough. Our gut can jump to erroneous conclusions. There are also countless real-life examples showing how slow, systematic number-crunching can sometimes lead to better decisions than even expert intuition.

Think of baseball manager Billy Beane’s use of cold stats to pick a winning baseball team (as depicted in the book and film Moneyball), or consider the success of economist Orley Ashenfelter in using weather-based stats, rather than the instinct of an expert palette, to pick fine wines and forecast future vintages. (See the Ian Ayres book Super Crunchers for a fuller account.)

There are countless examples showing how slow, systematic number-crunching can sometimes lead to better decisions.

But while these arguments highlight the hazards of intuitive thinking, there’s also plenty of counter evidence showing the ability of our non-conscious mind to arrive quickly at the best answer in a process that psychologists call “thin slicing.”

Look at the chess grandmasters who can identify the optimal move at a glance of the board, the war-weary soldier with a sixth sense for the buried bomb, or the art experts who can detect frauds. Their talents don’t come from systematic analysis, but because of an instinctive hunch (a feat described in Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Blink).

What we need to help us navigate through these mixed messages about the merits of intuition versus slow, deliberate analysis, is evidence about who should deploy one approach rather than another, and when. Surprisingly few, if any, studies have taken on this challenge. Until now.
In a new study, Erik Dane and his colleagues at Rice University tested two ideas: first, that the intuitive approach works better than analysis when a decision is “non-decomposable” – (that is, it can’t be broken down into constituent parts), and second, that it is effective specifically when the person making the choice has relevant expertise.

Let’s look at the examples they used. In the first study, 184 participants watched videos of 13 basketball shots and had to judge the difficulty of the shot from 1 to 10. Despite seeming subjective, this is an example of a judgment that does in fact have a correct answer, but it’s not one that can be arrived at through any obvious process of deliberate analysis.

The intuitive approach works better than analysis when a decision is non-decomposable.

The participants were split into two groups: both groups had 10 seconds to make their decisions on each shot, but before the process began, the analytical group was given time to reflect on the relevant factors they would consider, such as the number of defenders or whether the shooter was stationary or moving. The participants’ judgments were compared against the averaged verdicts of an experienced basketball head coach and his three assistants.

For the participants who adopted an analytical approach, their amount of background expertise in basketball was irrelevant to how well they did at the task. By contrast, for those who used their intuition, the participants with basketball expertise (defined as more than three years playing time at college) performed much better than those without relevant expertise. In fact, across all the participants, the highest scores of all were achieved by those who had relevant expertise and who went with their gut.

A second study was similar, but this time the participants looked at 10 designer handbags by Coach and Louis Vuitton and had to say whether they were genuine or fake. The participants instructed to go with their gut had just five seconds to make their decision for each handbag; those who used an analytical approach came up with relevant factors (such as material and stitching) at the start and then had 30 seconds for each bag. Again, the most successful participants had relevant experience (they owned three or more handbags by Coach or LV) and went with their gut.

The highest scores of all were achieved by those who had relevant expertise and who went with their gut.

What lessons can we take from this research for real life? First of all, it may be tempting to rely on our gut instincts when we feel out of our depth. Perhaps you’re choosing a location for your first exhibition or which of two new products to invest in. You don’t really know what you’re doing so you tell yourself you’ll go with what “feels right”.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have relevant expertise, then the new research suggests this approach is unwise. Your non-conscious mind has an amazing ability to draw diverse evidence together, and to do it fast. But it’s not a magician – it needs solid experience and knowledge to work with. So somewhat paradoxically, it’s actually when we are well-prepared or we have plenty of experience that relying on our gut instincts is the right approach.

In fact, for people with relevant expertise, these new results go further. When the decision you’re faced with is particularly resistant to being broken down and analyzed, then going with your gut is actually likely to be a superior approach than getting bogged down in futile reflection and over-thinking.

How about you?

When did going with your gut backfire?

More insights on: Decision-Making

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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