Why We Trust Our "Gut Feelings" Over Logic

In making decisions, people must decide not only what to choose, but how to choose it. VTT Studio/Shutterstock

Picture this: you get home from a long day at work and your stomach is rumbling. Although there are plenty of healthy leftovers in the freezer, you remember that a nice takeaway place just opened down the road. Do you assess your options, check your wallet, and form a logical decision or do you just trust your gut?

A new study has looked at why people appear to make decisions based on gut instincts over logic and reason. Their findings indicate that people choose to go with their gut because they see these choices as a true reflection of themselves. Further to that point, those who made a decision based on “gut instinct” were more likely to stick to their choice with conviction.

"We offer what we believe to be a novel and unique approach to the question of why people come to hold certain attitudes," lead researcher Sam Maglio, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said in a statement. "Focusing on feelings as opposed to logic in the decision-making process led participants to hold more certain attitudes toward and advocate more strongly for their choices."

As reported in the journal Emotion, researchers gathered over 450 people to take part in a series of thought experiments designed to flex their decision-making skills. They asked the participants to choose from a selection of products, such as different DVD players, mugs, apartments, or restaurants. For each option, they were asked to make the decision based on a snap, intuitive, gut-based feeling, or a logical decision. After this, they were asked a number of questions about their choices.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the people who made quick gut-based decisions, when quizzed, were more certain of their choice. It appears that people were happy and more confident with their choices, regardless of whether it was logically the "best" decision, because they perceived it as expressing something true about their themselves.

“In making decisions, people must decide not only what to choose, but how to choose it,” said Maglio. “Our research suggests that individuals focusing on their feelings in decision-making do indeed come to see their chosen options as more consistent with what is essential, true and unwavering about themselves.”

However, the research raises a warning. Making decisions with your intuition is all well and good if you're deciding whether you want pizza or a Chinese takeaway, but when it comes to making serious choices that affect others (such as your political opinions), take your time to think it over. A little bit of cool, calm rationality is advisable.

“When our political attitudes are made intuitively and make us certain that we're right, we shut ourselves off from the possibility that we might be even a little bit wrong," Maglio explained.

"For this reason, perhaps a bit of the openness facilitated by deliberation isn't a bad thing after all."

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