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When to Go With Your Gut and Be True to Yourself

It may depend on the type of decision you're making.

Key points

  • People infer that decision-makers who use intuition are being more authentic.
  • People can make decisions using intuition or deliberation, but intuition sometimes fails to produce the best outcome.
  • Whether intuition or deliberation might seem like the "right" approach, the domain of the decision matters.

When you make decisions, do you rely on intuition? Or do you thoroughly reason through your options? What approach is better?

The notion that we have two decision-making modes, intuition and deliberation, goes back centuries. Different thinkers have called these modes different names, but the general idea is the same. We can make decisions impulsively based on a gut feeling, known as intuition. Or we can be slow and analytical, weighing the pros and cons ad nauseam, known as deliberation.

We are often told that it’s best to be rational and deliberative during decision-making. There is a good reason for that. Work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among others, has shown that going with your gut can lead to decisions that are based on stereotypes, and are often flawed. For example, hiring decisions are based heavily on the “feeling” that employers get about potential employees, leading to a push in some circles to get rid of unstructured interviews. Employers also compare potential hires to a prototype of what a “good” employee should look like.

Up until recently, this is how many athletes were drafted into the NBA. If they resembled someone who was already a successful player, such as Steph Curry, they were much more likely to be ranked highly by scouts and selected. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey even admitted that he passed on Jeremy Lin in the 2010 NBA draft despite Lin’s incredibly promising record, “and I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.” Lin did eventually play for the Rockets from 2012 to 2014. In many fields, including professional sports, interviews and scout reports are now being replaced by more analytical, statistics-based approaches for hiring and other decisions. Yes, people are now “Moneyballing” everything.

Is there any room for intuition? Or should we slow down and make pros-and-cons lists for every important decision? That doesn’t seem right, either. Charles Darwin famously made a pros-and-cons list when deciding whether or not to marry Emma Wedgwood (example cons of getting married: “terrible loss of time,” “less money for books”). This sort of deliberation over a decision that most people think should be based on love seems cold and even absurd.

In some cases, we feel that we should use intuition. But what are those cases? When is intuition actually judged to be the more appropriate strategy?

A recent series of studies, published in Cognition by Oktar and Lombrozo, shed light. First, the domain of decision-making matters. When selecting a person to date, a kitten to adopt, or a playlist for a party, it’s better to go with your gut. But when choosing a laptop, making a medical decision, or deciding on an investment, most people agree that you ought to take a deliberative approach—hiring decisions also fell into this category. The authors selected a variety of domains that participants would be familiar with, but previous research has shown that intuitive domains tend to be those where the outcomes are hard to evaluate objectively; it is easier to come up with criteria for which candidate is best for a job, but it is hard to define exactly what makes the “best” playlist.

Oktar and Lombrozo asked what inferences people make about decision-makers who take an intuitive approach versus a deliberative approach; people who go with their intuition are perceived as being more authentic, as well as more committed to their choice. Maybe Darwin’s deliberative approach to his marriage decision is off-putting because we feel that he will be less committed to a marriage decision grounded in reasoning, or because we think that he is not being true to himself.

These findings were correlational—the more people “prescribed” intuition for a choice, the more they perceived that the decision-maker was being authentic—but is the relationship between authenticity and intuition causal? Yes. In one experiment, the authors asked participants to recommend a decision-making strategy to a fictional character named Alex. In one condition, participants first read that Alex wanted to make the decision in a way that “reflects his true, authentic self.” In another condition, participants read the opposite, it was not important that the decision reflect Alex’s true self. In the authenticity condition, participants were more likely to recommend that Alex use an intuitive decision-making approach.

These findings are exciting for a couple of reasons. They emphasize that people make decisions in different ways depending on the situation, even someone fairly analytical might make a gut decision about which movie to watch, but there are situations where intuition is judged to be the right way to make a choice. The authors also identified that the situations in which intuition is favored are the ones where authenticity is important.

It’s ironic that we are bombarded with messaging that pushes us to be true to ourselves, while at the same time, we are often encouraged not to make rash, intuitive judgments. It’s no wonder that even simple decisions can provoke anxiety when we are trying to fulfill so many goals at once. This line of research, showing that our decision strategies should actually be flexible and situation-dependent, should be comforting to even the most indecisive among us.

References

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

Lewis, M. (2017). The undoing project. Penguin Books.

Lewis, M. (2004). Moneyball. W.W. Norton.

Dana, J., Dawes, R., & Peterson, N. (2013). Belief in the unstructured interview: The persistence of an illusion. Judgment and Decision Making, 8(5), 512–520.

Inbar, Y., Cone, J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). People’s intuitions about intuitive insight and intuitive choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 232–247.

Oktar, K., Lombrozo, T. (2022). Deciding to be authentic: Intuition is favored over deliberation when authenticity matters. Cognition, 223: 105021. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105021

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