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Gut-Feel Decisions


Explanations > Decisions > Gut-Feel Decisions

Unconscious understanding | Blind hope | Irrational fear | Discussion | See also


Many people make decisions based on gut feel, rather than logical, conscious reasoning. They may talk to people and immerse themselves in the problem, but in the end, they decide what feels right and probably do not know why. They may well not even consider alternatives as they jump directly to what seems to be the obviously correct solution. People who want to talk logic and use decision criteria seem either stupid or overly pedantic.

There is no magic in decision-making. The fundamental data on which decisions meat be made has to come from somewhere, as do the necessary decision-making skills.

When gut decisions are made they can be wise and unwise. Wise decisions come from unconscious understanding, while unwise ones are due either to blind hope or irrational fear. Wise decisions have a good chance of being right, while unwise ones do not.

Here are three reasons why we may have made a gut-feel decision:

Unconscious understanding

Our minds are pretty big, especially in terms of how much information they can hold and the complex problems they can solve. Unfortunately, much of this is in the unconscious and cannot easily be accessed. We can see this with the 'tip of the tongue' phenomenon and where we recognize many punchlines yet are unable to remember many jokes.

A good way of solving problems is to wallow in information about it, just trying to understand what is going on, then go and do something else while the unconscious mind gets on with the work. Then, when we get a sudden 'aha' moment, the gut-feel answer has a good chance of being right. A similar effect happens with mastery, where a long experience enables the real expert to know what to do without knowing why.

Blind hope

Sometimes our decisions are driven more by hope than reason. When we buy and sell company shares, we may feel it is the right choice, but if we do not have good information on company competence and market dynamics, we may well be wrong, even as we are sure we are right.

Hope is the emotion of gamblers who make losing bets while they cross their fingers and perform other empty rituals that make them feel temporarily confident. Yet their greatest skill is really in repeatedly fooling themselves.

Hope also comes from desperation, though while the conscious hoper may use gut-feel, they are far less confident than the gambler. The desperate hoper trusts their gut because they know of no better way. They often have urgent needs and so flail helplessly.

Irrational fear

Another situation where we us gut feel is when we face dangers. Without the luxury of time and resource, we feel forced to decide, so we must simply guess.

Fear is a potent emotion that typically triggers a fight or flight reaction. In this first, very instinctive decision, we choose whether to actively face the threat or to retreat to a position of safety. In retreat, we trade loss for survival. We may lose money, status or advantage, but we hopefully avoid an even greater loss that we would incur by standing our ground.

In advancing, we hopefully overcome obstacles, gaining experience and respect along the way. Anger can help give us courage here, though it can also lead to very risky actions. While fear makes us choose, wisdom is often the first casualty of emotional overwhelm.


In practice, many of our decisions use all three methods. We have imperfect knowledge and skill, but must still decide as the consequence of no decision often seem worse than a bad decision. And so, with trepidation and hope, we make our best guess and then hope things will turn out, at least better than they are now.

Gut feel is also what we often experience when we use any of the many short-circuit mechanisms of choice. In particular we are subject to many biases, from over-optimistic to stereotyping other people.

The bottom line of gut-feel decision-making is that we should pause before acting, especially when the right course of action seems obvious. In this, we should ask ourselves three things:

  • Is it reasonable that I have enough knowledge and experience in my unconscious mind to reach this conclusion?
  • Might I be hoping more than knowing? Am I desperate, or even just a little anxious, about something that may be unduly influencing me?
  • Am I fearful about something? Am I choosing in order to get away from something more than trying to achieve a positive outcome?

Only after honestly reviewing these three factors should we decide whether to trust our gut. Or not.

See also

Emotions, Hope, Fear


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