Going With Your Gut? What Science Says About Making Better Decisions

​How many times have you been advised to "go with your gut?"

Going With Your Gut? What Science Says About Making Better Decisions

Posted Thursday May 25th, 2017 by in Analysis + Strategy.

This article originally appeared in Peter Kozodoy's Inc. column.

How many times have you been advised to "go with your gut?"

Normally, we interpret that adage to mean that we should follow our intuition and instincts. When I started out in business, however, I used to think that this kind of advice was a bit useless, leaving too much room for interpretation and potential for error.

After all, how could something as fuzzy as intuition produce accurate results, consistently?

Now that I've seen a thing or two out here in the business world, I've been confounded to both see and experience firsthand the role that intuition can play in making otherwise very serious, data-intensive and logic-based decisions. I've come to understand that going with your gut isn't just a trite admonition, but a scientifically sound way to make better decisions.

Just last year, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Joel Pearson, conducted a study on intuition--and for the first time, his research team found evidence that people can use their intuition to make better, faster, more accurate and more confident decisions. The report was subsequently published in the journal, Psychological Science.

The research team defined intuition as the "brain process that gives people the ability to make decisions without the use of analytical reasoning," which in the business world seems like a bad idea, particularly given our increasing reliance on data. Even so, we can probably all agree that intuition must play some role in our decision-making, particularly when it comes to soft skills like human resources, networking and pitching business.

Up until this study, the problem in assessing intuition has been the lack of a reliable test to gather objective data on intuition and even prove that it exists. However, Pearson and his team finally developed a series of experiments that could better judge whether a person was using intuition or not, and the extent to which instincts came into play in any given decision.

Pearson's experiment asks students to judge a moving swath of dots while simultaneously pinging their subconscious minds with flashing photos of "positive" or "negative" images. Positive images like puppies and babies served to produce a positive emotional response, while negative images like guns and snakes served to produce a negative response.

The images were meant to mimic the type of subliminal information involved in intuition in the first place; namely, they were "brief, emotionally charged and subconsciously perceived," making them perfect proxies to the real-world inputs that bombard our subconscious minds every day.

Over the course of the study, those subliminal images proved that more positive inputs produced better results on the track-the-dots task, while more negative inputs produced worse results on the task. Furthermore, respondents who received those positive inputs over time were able to make correct calls more quickly, and reported feeling more confident about their ability to recognize the trends of the dots.

In summary, the study concluded that the type and frequency of subliminal messages directly correlated with both one's instinctual ability to make accurate decisions, and one's ability to trust the instincts in the first place.

In business and in life, this study teaches us that surrounding ourselves with more positive, subliminal inputs not only helps us make better decisions, but also helps us to trust those decisions over time.

For business owners, that might mean spending more social time with employees to pick up on subtle cues about workplace happiness. For sales folks, that might mean being more observant in pitch meetings. For some employees, embracing positive, subliminal messages might simply mean asking to sit in on client calls to pick up on subtle references that may help future work be more aligned with the clients' wishes.

The ability to nurture a sense of intuition might help explain why some folks get "luckier" than others, have the uncanny ability to spot exceptional business ideas, or always seem to find the best people to work with. It seems as if their awareness of positive, subconscious inputs is much higher than others, which over time allows them to make better, more confident decisions.

I, for one, will be opening my eyes and mind a lot more to the subliminal messages that are all around us. It seems that those tiny inputs we receive all day long add up to a gut feeling that can produce measurably better results than any spreadsheet of data. So, the next time your gut feeling opposes the data, you might just be onto something.

All things considered, I'd go with your gut.


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