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Should You Go With Your Gut or Think it Through?

The research is pretty clear on this one.

We’ve all experienced it: Second guessing ourselves.

You circle one answer on a multiple choice exam, then change your mind as well as your answer. Or you choose one apartment over another, then change your mind and go with the second one.

Do you do better when you go with your gut or when you take time to analyze your options?

Here is the quick answer: Think it through.

In 1984, a team of researchers led by Dr. Ludy Benjamin analyzed the results of 33 studies conducted over the course of 70 years found that people who change their answers did better than those who stuck with their first responses. In fact, in none of these studies did people get a lower score because they changed their minds. This result was replicated in 2012 by Drs. Alex Heidenberg and Benjamin Layne.

This turns out to be true even for experts, such as master chess players. In 2012, a group of researchers led by Dr. J.H. Moxley presented chess players with complex chess positions and had them “think aloud” while deciding which move to make. This allowed the researchers to evaluate whether the first move mentioned turned out to be better than moves chosen later in the deliberative process. The results were clear: First moves were worse, even for simple chess problems.

Does this mean we should ignore our hunches or intuitions? Not necessarily. According to Dr. Daniel Kahneman, decisions are the output of two processes, a fast intuition- or emotion-based process and a slower, deliberative one. To Kahneman, intuitive activities are very similar to perceptual activities, such as seeing and hearing. Ask yourself this: When you glimpse something out of corner of your eye, what do you normally do next? You probably direct your attention to the new stimulus, allowing your visual system to process it in more detail. As it turns out, that is probably the best way to think about the role of intuition in decision-making: Your gut reaction tells you this particular choice deserves further deliberation.

It also matters a good deal whether your intuitions spring from a well-organized knowledge base or ignorance. A research team led by Dr. Michel Tuan Pham of Columbia Business School asked people to make a number of predictions concerning future events, including the 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, the box-office success of different movies, the winner of American Idol, movements of the Dow Jones Index, and the winner of a college football championship game. The results consistently showed that people with higher trust in their feelings were more likely to correctly predict the final outcome than those with lower trust in their feelings. The researchers call this phenomenon the emotional oracle effect.

But there is one caveat: The researchers also found that the accuracy of these intuitions depended on the amount of domain-relevant knowledge possessed by the person making these predictions. For example, only people who had some background knowledge about the current football season benefited from trusting in their feelings when predicting the winner of the national college football championship. This means that we can safely rely on our feelings or intuitions only when we are making decisions or predictions in domains we know well.

Dr. Cummins is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think and The Other Side of Psychology: How Experimental Psychologists Find Out About the Way We Think and Act.

Benjamin, L.T., Cavell, T.A., & Shallenberger, W.R. (1984). Staying with initial answers on objective tests: Is it a myth? Teaching of Psychology, 11, 133-141.

Heidenberg, A.J., & Layne, B. (2012). Answer Changing: A Conditional Argument". College Student Journal, 16 Jul, 2012.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Moxley, J. H., Ericsson, K. A., Charness, N., & Krampe, R. T. (2012). The role of intuition and deliberative thinking in experts' superior tactical decision-making. Cognition, 124, 72-78.

Pham, M.T., Lee, L., & Stephen, A.T. (in press). Feeling the future: The emotional oracle effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 39.

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