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Trust Your Gut? Not So Fast

The celebrated sense of rightness just affirms your subjective frame.

Trust your instinct, we’re urged; it’s never wrong. Nice platitude. It makes us feel safe. But gut instinct is based in our knowledge and experience. Thus, it’s inevitably limited to our specific perceptual frame.

Cognitive research has found that the formation of a perceptual frame involves two primary avenues for processing information. Some moves through rational channels and some through intuitive channels. Intuition is aligned with automatic, subconscious judgment, which can be highly influenced by emotion. It’s fast, and its conclusions arrive without analysis. Thus, it’s vulnerable to personal bias and error.

Although analytical reasoning is slower, it offers perspective, along with awareness of a greater range of factors. The result of careful, objective analysis is usually more reliable.

In other words, just because an idea feels does not make it right. Gut instinct, while useful, can also form a threshold diagnosis that becomes an immovable anchor, thwarting full analysis.

I came across the website of J. Scott Hornoff, who’d once been convicted of murder. He spent more than six years in prison before being exonerated, and he’s writing a book about his ordeal. What’s unique about his tale is that he was a detective himself. Like his fellow officers, he’d once trusted his gut. But then he discovered that his accusers’ gut instinct about him had been dead wrong.

I asked him to say a few things about his ordeal and what he’d learned. Here’s what he wrote:

“Imagine being innocent and being accused of a crime you did not commit. Imagine that you can choose the detectives who are looking at you as a potential suspect. Would you rather someone be guided by logic and facts or by feelings when deciding your fate? There are no witnesses placing you anywhere near the scene of the crime. There is no physical evidence linking you to the crime.

“Spiritualists and others who make a living advocating for following your inner voice will often tell you that by doing so you will lead a more peaceful life that is less at odds with universal energy.

"Cops are most often associated as ones who follow their gut or the tingle down their spine when investigating a criminal complaint; however, this course of analysis can often cause the investigator to ignore facts, and result in her beliefs forcing every shred of speculation and conjecture to fit the crime.

“Scientists have even devoted studies that claim we access parts of our brain we are unaware of when making decisions, yet these instances would be irrelevant when discussing an examination of facts which pertain to a case in which she has no prior knowledge of.

"The study further asserts that: ‘Unconscious memory may come into play, for example, in recognizing the face of a perpetrator of a crime or the correct answer on a test. Or the choice from a horde of consumer products may be driven by memories that are quite alive on an unconscious level.’ (

“Yet there exist numerous other studies which contradict these assertions that eyewitness identification can be made by gut instinct. In fact, nearly 78% of the 300+ exonerations involving The Innocence Project are directly associated to mistaken eyewitness identification.

“Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler who worked on the Unabomber, Green River killer and other cases, discovered that some of the most vicious serial killers acted as the most harmless, and that many investigators had dismissed suspects using their gut feelings, believing the man they were evaluating was a good guy.

“I, too, have felt the negative effects of investigators’ gut instincts. Whether their intuition was initially based on a dislike or other prejudicial feelings, I was indicted, tried, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for a crime I did not commit. I spent 6 1/2 years wrongfully imprisoned before the one responsible came forward and confessed.

“At the beginning of my ordeal in 1989, I was a city police detective working in Warwick, Rhode Island. I had been unfaithful with a woman who was murdered in my city. I understood why I was questioned; however, I requested and passed a polygraph examination. My clothes were not seized and examined. My vehicle was not processed.

"I agree that I was eliminated without a thorough investigation, but I wasn’t directing the investigation, and I was grateful when I was told I was no longer a suspect.

“Three members of my department who still suspected that I was guilty sought out the RI Attorney General’s Office, which appointed the RI State police to investigate me rather than the murder. There was no friendship or respect between the three Warwick investigators and me and my brother, also a Warwick cop. Perhaps this influenced their gut feelings that I was guilty. The state police investigators were placed in a difficult position, but immediately assumed I was guilty.

“According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been over 1,000 exonerations in the United States. The Innocence Project proves the innocence of roughly 24% of those they represent when DNA exists, is properly preserved, and testing is granted. With 2.3-2.6 million people incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails, it’s fairly safe to believe that thousands of innocents languish in jail for crimes they did not commit.

"Perhaps and investigator’s perceptions and judgments of others is the actual main cause of wrongful imprisonment.”


To learn more: Scott Hornoff launched a website for his book project: He invites readers to review and make comments.

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