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When To Go With Your Gut

Unless you have relevant experience to back you up, going with your intuition when making tough choices may cause more harm than good.

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 Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (26)
  • Srinivas Rao

    Every single time I’ve gone against it, it’s come back to bite me.

  • Ivy

    I’m pretty bad at math, but I’m not sure if the interpretation of the question is right. The problem does clearly state that together the bat and ball cost 1.10. So how did you arrive at 1.20 as the total?

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Ivy, the point is that 10 cents feels like the right answer, but it can’t be, because if the ball cost 10 cents, then both bat and ball together would be $1.20 (which doesn’t fit the total cost of $1.10 that we’re told at the start). If you think it through, you’ll see the correct answer is the ball costs 5 cents. The bat costs a dollar more, which makes it $1.05. The two together equals $1.10.

  • Ivy

    Chrisitian, I totally get your point, I’ve read Kahneman’s book. It’s one of my best reads of the year.

    What I’m trying to say is that the example used to flesh out the point could be more convincing.

    In math, the defined parameters need to be abided to for the answer to be considered correct. The question clearly states that it costs 1.10 for the both the bat and the ball. To change the total to 1.20 as you solve the problem does not seem like the correct next step. It’s like saying x + y = 10 and then going back to say, actually, it’s 12.

    And that distracts me from your key message, which I feel is a pity because it is a great one.

  • huvidea

    Here is the math
    x=price of ball

    then according to statement

    price of ball + price of bat = x + (x+1) = 2x+1 = 1.10

    which means x = 0.5

    Anyways practice gut level thinking…it gets better when practiced

  • Ivy

    Just coz I can’t do math doesn’t mean I don’t do gut level thinking. That’s stereotyping, which also falls under instinctive thinking. I believe Kahneman talked about that in his book as well.

    But thanks for the math. That makes sense now. Cheers.

  • Christian Jarrett

    Hi Ivy, I see what u mean now but it sounds like you’re analysing and reflecting on the problem. I think for most people (not everyone, granted), they have a strong gut feeling that the answer is 10 cents. In many cases that feeling persists even after they’ve taken the time to approach the question more systematically.

  • Deskthoughts On...

    This so called “intuition” or gut, in my opinion is some mysterious brain calculation that comes from experience only. I don’t believe it’s a gift that we have from the day one of our lives.

    I think that if you make a good decision on something complex and unfamiliar, it’s rather luck. Not gut. The author is so right.

    The next step in researches is to actually figure out brain activities during gut-based decisions of experienced and unexperienced minds. There might be something to discover there.

  • Chris

    This info is very useful for me! Thanks for sharing.

  • Scott Wagers

    It strikes me that intuition is a matter of pattern recognition – relating the current problem to something that has worked in the past. Hence, experience is important. So, the point is highly valid.

    What about ‘Beginner’s Mind’ where the naive mind actually comes up with insights experts overlook. It probably depends upon your goal. If you are going to find a solution to a problem, like the examples presented using intuition based upon experience makes sense. If you are looking to bring innovation to an existing process, beginners may be the better choice. There is an alternative. Which is to have both. Creativity and problem solving in a group is always better. There is good literature to support that when a group is composed of members who are completely unfamiliar with each other it does not perform optiamally. Groups also perform poorly when they are all completely familiar with each other. Groups that are a mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity perform the best. Perhaps, at least part of this optimal mix is a mixture of thinking styles: intuition, analytical approach, and begnner’s mind.

  • Emma

    It also reminds me of unconscious competence… you have to be competent but when you are, you can just make more effective decisions without too much analysis. Also, thinking of de Bono, it seems like when you go with your gut (which is really your heart), you’ve got more invested in it and therefore it’s also a crucial factor when making real decisions (not perhaps thinking about baseball!)

  • Sergio Carrasco Jr

    Oh no! Two of my favorite sites offering opposing suggestions!

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Sergio, thanks for flagging up this new paper – it looks really interesting. I haven’t had a chance to read the full text yet, but from the description on Science Daily, it doesn’t sound as contradictory to my 99U piece as you have suggested. In the research by Prof. Marius Usher the task was non-decomposable – the description says that the numbers appeared too fast to be analysed or memorised, so participants had no choice but to go with their intuition. My article suggested that going with your gut was best when a task was non-composable and that relevant experience was important. But in Usher’s task there was really no choice – participants had to go with their gut. Moreover, the question at hand – which is the better investment – was really very simple, based only on which were the bigger numbers, so it sounds like it wasn’t’ really relevant whether participants had relevant experience or not. Sounds to me like Usher’s experiment was more about showing a kind of automatic mathematical skill that we’re surprisingly good at, rather than being about when it’s a good idea to go with your gut or not. But like I say, I haven’t read the full text, so to some extent I’m going with my intuition here (see what I did there!). I’m going to see if I can get the paper. Thanks again for sharing the link.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Scott, thanks for these interesting points. I really liked what you said about Beginner’s Mind and the importance of having a mix of newcomers and old-hands in creative groups. I think there’s some research too on the benefits in some situations of taking a break from a problem, so you can look at it afresh and almost try to emulate having a beginner’s perspective again.

  • Vijay

    This is a tricky question and answer. In real world, it is more than $1 means +$1, not ball cost+$1.

    Here.. ball+bat = 1.10 and bat costs $1 more than ball.

    So.. x+1=1.10


  • X

    From my experience, solving a math problem such as this one would be called guessing, and has nothing to do with the so-called gut feeling. I appreciate the writer’s point, it’s just that the example doesn’t really match the point of this article.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi, I don’t agree. I think we know when a guess is nothing more than a guess. For example, if asked to predict whether a coin will come up heads or tails, I would just guess, and I would know that I was swinging in the dark. In contrast, the point with the bat and ball problem is that (for most people) an answer comes rapidly to mind (10 cents) and that answer doesn’t feel like a wild guess, it *feels* right instinctively although it’s tricky for us to articulate why.

    Of course, other forms of intuitive maths calculation do result in correct answers. The sight of “2+2= ” triggers the answer 4 in our minds automatically and correctly. Similarly, we can count quantities up to around 4 or 5 in an instant (a process called subitizing) without needing to engage in deliberate, piecemeal addition. In these cases our non-conscious mind (or what Kahneman would call our System 1, or we might call our gut) arrives at the correct answer. In the case of the bat and ball problem it arrives at the wrong answer. I was simply trying to provide a quick example of how our intuition can sometimes lead us astray – landing on an answer that feels correct, but is in fact wrong.

  • jerry

    fuck man

  • Kenneth Vogt

    Hmm, those who like math like the ball and bat example and those who don’t, don’t. This goes to the core of the “gut” problem. We like to trust our gut. That’s because it’s ours, and we have a soft spot for ourselves. Unfortunately, that’s a really bad reason to have confidence in something. There are two ways to improve our gut: training and tuning. Training is compelling because it appeals to our sense of reason. But tuning is far more effective because it aligns us with what is true. Our reasons are still ours and thus are prone to bias. But truth is truth. So to answer the question of when to go with our gut: go with it when it is not biased, even by reason.

  • Ed

    Re ‘Beginner’s Mind: I believe there is strong evidence that experts are the most creative in a given domain.

  • Andre Natta

    I’m not trying to be funny, but I’m wondering what happens when your gut tells you to seek out more data? It’s a valid gut reaction…

  • Stackpot

    Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, instead of going with your instincts, you played it safe like in school. What is your intentions, would you like some help, when it comes time to make your decisions, always trust the things you felt.

  • Isabella

    Yes totally agree

  • Elizabeth Taylor

    My gut said 5 cents, so I must still have reliable guts.

  • qusdis

    I got this wrong a long time ago but learned. I know the answer now, but I think the lesson I got about going with my gut is using time effectively. As in — slow down and read what the question is actually asking. All the data you need for the answer is right there if you don’t rush.

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