Deciding from the gut? What pitfalls lurk

Sometimes it feels like a swarm of butterflies fluttering through your stomach. At other times it seems as if stones were stored in the middle of the body. Some people rely heavily on such gut feelings. When you think of variant A, your stomach contracts, coloring variant B causes a pleasant warmth: Then the decision is clear – right?

What we colloquially call gut feeling is actually called intuition. Underneath that means Dorsch Lexicon of Psychology an inspirational one, not gained through experience or reflection, but through direct grasping of the essence of a reality […] Insight.” Or, to put it roughly: Those who decide intuitively do not look at the facts first. Depending on the situation and previous knowledge, this can be a good or bad approach.

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Gut Feeling Benefits

First of all, gut feeling has a decisive advantage over rational deliberation. “It helps to weigh things up quickly and without using major mental capacities,” writes the science magazine “Spektrum”. Without intuition, life would be a huge brain teaser and exhausting as a result.

But intuition can only be as good, writes “Spektrum”, as the environment from which it comes. It is therefore important to know in which areas you have enough expertise to make gut decisions – and where it makes sense to consult additional information. A doctor may be right with a gut feeling diagnosis. For someone who knows little about medicine, on the other hand, the chance of this happening is slim.

Abdominal Brain – What is it?

Scientists now refer to the network of nerves in the abdomen as the abdominal brain. However, this does not mean that the human being has a second clump of gray cells in the middle of the body that fulfills very similar functions as the brain in the head. “Many people imagine it like this: the head makes the rational, conscious decisions, and the feelings or intuition are in the stomach. But it’s not that simple,” write the authors of the book “Intestine to Brain!”. “If something ‘hits our stomachs’ or makes ‘butterflies’ fly, then it is most likely not coming from the gut brain.” It is merely a matter of the body reacting to signals from the brain. The main task of the abdominal brain, on the other hand, is that digestion runs autonomously – i.e. without the influence of the brain.

Intuition is not a sixth sense

This view of intuition supports a statement by psychology professor Gerd Gigerenzer. He has been dealing with gut decisions for decades. According to him, intuition is neither a sixth sense nor a divine inspiration. Instead, they need “experience, skill, expertise”, he told the magazine “Psychology Today”.

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Gigerenzer is a fan of heuristics. People use such rules of thumb for making decisions and judging completely automatically, without being aware of it. Basically that’s good. Because these rules of thumb make everyday life much easier. Thanks to them, you make decisions faster and have to think less hard than someone who wants to include all possible alternatives and their probabilities. Instead, you trust that it will work out.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics often lead to a result that is sufficient to good for everyday life. However, they simplify relationships that are actually more complex. You shouldn’t rely on your gut feeling on topics you don’t know anything about. Sometimes you are lucky and your intuition points you in the right direction – by accident. Often, however, the consequences of such an approach are poorer decisions in the long run.

Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have studied heuristics extensively. Among the best known are the following. Those who know about them can better assess whether their own intuition is playing tricks on them.

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You should watch out for these three pitfalls

Availability heuristic: People tend to make judgments based on information that is easier for them to recall. During one of their studies, Kahneman and Tversky presented participants with an excerpt from a novel. They asked people for an estimate. What comes up more often in the text, words that start with a K (like cat) or words that have the K as a third character (like “beekeeper”)? Most subjects decided that words beginning with a K were more common. But that is wrong. How did this misjudgment come about? Well, people find it easier to list words that start with the letter K than to think of words that have the K as the third digit.

representativeness heuristic: The man has a trimmed beard and is wearing a suit. The woman is tattooed and is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Who wins the election? Their appearance says nothing about the competence of the two. Nevertheless, there is a feeling that the man would probably be more suitable – because he looks like people stereotypically imagine a politician. The representativeness heuristic is about how typical an instance is of a category.

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The social psychologist Hans-Peter Erb votes on his Youtube channel an example from the lottery to illustrate this type of heuristic. Which row of numbers is more likely to win: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” or “7, 11, 19, 22, 27, 35”? The first variant seems strange to people – because typically the lottery numbers drawn are wildly mixed up and not a series of numbers from 1 to 6. So they think “7, 11, 19, 22, 27, 35” is more likely. That is a mistake. Because the probabilities are the same – variant 2 only seems more representative.

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anchor heuristic: Someone shows you a camera and asks you to guess if it’s worth more or less than $300. What is the maximum amount you would want to spend on the camera? You would almost certainly be willing to pay more than if that someone asked if the camera was worth more or less than $30. The monetary values, 30 and 300 euros, serve as so-called anchors. As the first piece of information available in this context, we align our own estimate with the anchor – even if the number was chosen completely at random. In everyday life, we encounter such anchors as “recommended retail prices”.

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Difficult to recognize your own mistakes in reasoning

In his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slowly, the psychologist Kahneman writes that mistakes in intuitive reasoning are often difficult to prevent—no wonder when people automatically follow rules of thumb. In particular, you hardly notice your own mistakes in reasoning. Nevertheless, it is not entirely hopeless. People could learn to “recognize situations where mistakes are likely and make more effort to avoid far-reaching mistakes when the stakes are high.”

In his book, the psychologist reveals two basic rulesthat help avoid being misled by cognitive biases such as heuristics.

  • Become aware of how probable the respective cases are in principle. Suppose there are 600,000 engineers in a country but only 6000 fantasy writers. Then it is much more likely that someone earns his money as an engineer – even if he or she is described as “creative and interested in space travel”.
  • Question the validity of the information provided. Just because some people in your circle of acquaintances have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance doesn’t mean that your own nausea is the result of the cocoa for breakfast.

“I have a gut feeling about it.” The next time you hear yourself say that, you should stop and think for a moment. Do I have any idea about the topic? Then intuition can be a good guide. Otherwise it is advisable – at least for important decisions – to obtain more information. On the whole, however, intuition remains a good thing. For, as Kahneman writes, “Most of our judgments and actions are mostly appropriate. […] The trust we place in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always.”

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