Should we "trust our gut," or not?

When to rely on intuition


Should you trust your gut? Or should careful logic prevail?

In listening to a recent interview with Australian actor, Hugh Jackman, I was struck by The Greatest Showman star's reliance on intuition and how the trajectory of his life has been shaped by a willingness to make decisions with his 'gut.'

Jackman, who studied journalism as an undergraduate, was set to embark on his career as a newsman but had to rack up just a few more credits to earn his degree. A friend told him that the easiest class to take was theater—and in fact, that it didn't even require a performance. Jackman signed up for the class on a whim, to get the easy credit and then to be on his way.

Well, of course, that's not what happened. That semester the curriculum changed. It turned out that the class would be required to put on a play after all. And, perhaps it will come as no surprise to any of us today who have since come to know Jackman for his roles in everything from Les Miserables to X-Men, but he was picked to play the starring role.

Despite his ascent to university 'leading man,' it still hadn't occurred to Jackman that acting was a realistic career option. That thought only occurred as he was about to walk out the door and head out into the real world:

And only when I graduated, as I was graduating, I realized: I’ve just spent 90 percent of my time doing that play and loving it. And I said, “There’s something wrong here. Like, I’m doing investigative journalism. Surely, I should be really more passionate about that? Maybe something’s off.” We went, actually toured the play to another university that was half theater and half communications. And I remember viscerally walking into the place where we were staying—we were staying at a student house, about eight people in this house; the smell of weed was just suffocating as I walked in—but what I remember was, the moment I walked into that house and I met those people, I had this feeling all over my body that I’d made a mistake, that I should have been here; I should’ve been doing this course. I knew then.

Jackman decided then and there to shift paths, to follow his intuition, and to study acting. He describes a pattern that has persisted throughout his life ever since—a pattern of trusting his gut. He did it when he decided to turn down the "it" Australian soap opera, Neighbors, to study at the revered Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and again, later in his career, when he shifted course on a dime for the opportunity to work with a famed director.

In Jackman's case, his intuition has served him well. Here's how he describes it.

There is some calling that is beyond the conscious brain’s strategizing of how to be happy and successful or meaningful in life. There’s something elemental and instinctual. And honing that, the people I admire the most really hone that ability in big decisions in their life and in… small, day-to-day decisions. So now, I still, like you, battle with that because I can be dominated by my mind, my brain, pros and cons, think this through.And I have been working with a life coach, Lauren Zander, now for four years, and this is one of the biggest things we focus on, really understanding what it is you’re here for, what it is you want to do, having those priorities very clearly set out so that those turning points in your life become clear. 

Defining intuition

Intuition is a funny thing. It's strange that we can just "feel" that a decision is right or wrong—or even sense that we like or dislike a person within minutes of meeting them. Such quick judgments don't logically make sense because we're operating with little to no information. Right?

Well, there's more to the story.

Psychology Today defines intuition as "a form of knowledge that appears in consciousness without obvious deliberation. It is not magical but rather a faculty in which hunches are generated by the unconscious mind rapidly sifting through past experience and cumulative knowledge."

So in reality, we are operating with information. Our unconscious brains have accumulated hoards of information—some innate and passed down from our ancestors, and some learned over a lifetime. And all of this knowledge is harnessed in milliseconds by applying heuristics, or rules of thumb, to help us determine if this is a situation we need to get out of—or if this is a person we don't like.

In other words, trusting our guts is not a complete shot in the dark; it's not a total roll of the dice. There is some logic and reasoning behind the feeling you have or the judgment you've made, even if it's not immediately obvious to you.

So that settles it, I guess. Let's just go with our guts then.

Well, wait a minute. There's more.

The problem with intuition

In her piece, "Sixth sense: the science behind intuition," which ran in the Sydney Morning Herald (noticing the Aussie theme here today, mate?), Amanda Hooton points out that "intuition has other characteristics, too. It can, for instance, be wrong. We decide, within a few seconds of meeting a co-worker, that we don’t like him. Three months later, we realize he’s excellent. This is because intuitions are generalizations based on past experience, not infallible divination of the future."

Ah, right. Those preconceived notions we all have. Turns out, sometimes they're wrong.

Eric Bonabeau, takes it a step further in his Harvard Business Review piece, "Don't Trust Your Gut," in which he argues that "people have always sought to put their faith in mystical forces when confronted with earthly confusion" and that despite many top CEOs' tendencies toward making gut decisions, an overreliance on intuition is dangerous. Bonabeau argues that relying on gut feelings becomes less effective the more complicated decisions get and the more unprecedented conditions become. Intuition was fine for the caveman avoiding the lion, but works less well for the highly nuanced business decision. That, according to Bonabeau, is where technology and advanced decision frameworks come in handy.

Thinking fast, and slow

So back to the original question: Should we trust our guts? Or should careful logic prevail?

Intuition seems to have worked out pretty well for Hugh Jackman. And it's got millions of years of evolution on its side. So that's a pretty strong argument.

But then again, could Hooton and Bonabeau’s criticisms be right? And is trusting our intuition becoming an antiquated idea in an era of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and well, just better access to data?

Perhaps the best thought-out approach to this conundrum comes from Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, whose theory of decision-making is laid out in his bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow. In Kahneman's framework, System 1, which operates automatically, generates suggestions, feelings, and intuitions, often steeped in past experience. System 2, where more conscious, intentional thought occurs, then validates System 1's suggestions—in which case they become beliefs—or rejects them, in which case they do not.

The good news is that System 1 takes care of a lot for us. And it's mostly right. "Don't cross that street because a truck is barreling toward you that you don't even consciously see right now." Thank you very much, System 1. Remind me to never say a bad thing about you, again. And it's even more advanced than that—handling complicated tasks like driving and even simple conversation.

Of course, some of System 1's control over us is a little scary. Kahneman argues that many of our decisions have already been made by System 1 before we even get around to consciously considering them in System 2. It's kind of like when I see that really expensive piece of exercise equipment in a Facebook ad. System 1 (and apparently Facebook) already know that I'm buying it. System 2 and I are in the dark until we find ourselves punching in those credit card numbers.

Kahneman has probably thought as deeply as anyone on the planet about these concepts and his book introduces many more considerations, including the vast number of biases that impact our decision-making across both systems.

What his work very effectively does is to provide a framework to answer the question of whether or not we should trust logic or our guts.

In diving down this rabbit hole myself, I've come to two simple conclusions.

  1. Our intuition is valuable — I think we already know this intuitively (sorry) but there is actual science behind the idea that our gut feelings are meaningful. They are essentially short-hand reactions comprising years (and even millennia) of experience. All of that information is synthesized in a moment to deliver a quick answer. That is both amazing and valuable.

  2. But logic is, too — As discussed, our intuition is nowhere near infallible. Quite simply, we get things wrong. So logically (again, sorry), it makes sense, especially for more complicated decisions and those where the stakes are the highest to rely on logic. That means data; it means pros and cons, and it means deeper consideration of potential outcomes.

Personally, I think the right balance lies somewhere in between the two. Going with our guts but validating important decisions through logic. Or, if we're going against our guts, making damn sure the logic is close to bullet-proof.

With that, both my gut and my logical brain are telling me to end this article. So I will leave you to consider what decisions you're making in your own life right now, and if you’re making them with your gut, your logic, or some combination of the two.

Thanks as always for reading. I’ll be back next week. Be well until then. — Greg


Photo credit: @soymeraki

Extra credit: I come bearing treats this week for your content diet. Here you go…

Tim Ferriss & Hugh Jackman — this is the interview that inspired this article. It probably inspired about five more as well. Definitely worth a listen.

Thinking Fast and Slow — the book has been described as a masterpiece. If you’re short on time, here’s an interview that Lex Fridman did with Daniel Kahneman that covers the high points.

And totally unrelated… Have you seen the documentary, Human Nature, on Netflix? I think I’m late to this, but my gosh, if you’ve got any interest in what the future holds—both scientifically and ethically—when it comes to gene-editing and “CRISPR” technology, this is 1.5 hours well-spent. I thought the story was presented beautifully with both sides of the ethical dilemma equally represented. Like I’ve written about before, this word is about to crazy. Buckle up.

And finally, hate to do this to you, but since you’re read this far, how about a…


Apologies in advance, but given that college graduation season is upon us, I thought it would only be right to plug the book that I published last year for young professionals, called Say Good Morning, Like a Human- 50 Unwritten Rules for Surviving the Modern Workplace and Building a Career You Love. I drew on my own 20+ years of experience (and mistakes) in the corporate workplace and whittled it down to the 50 most important lessons I wish someone had taught me before I even walked in the door on Day 1 of my career. The book is available in paperback and Kindle formats, or if you’d like to hear my best impression of self-help guru, Tony Robbins, you can also check out the audiobook, which I had a lot of fun recording.

That’s really it.

See you next week!