When to Trust Your Gut

Trust your gut instinct the most when it tells you not to do something.

If your intuition is to work with person X, maybe it's right, maybe it's not. But if your intuition is not to work with a particular person, you should probably heed it.

Positive intuitions are more easily corrupted by biases such as wishful thinking.

For example, when assessing a potential hire, you may be sexually attracted to the person. This is going to positively affect how you view the person and may contribute to a positive hunch on the person's qualifications, even if you consciously know your desire to have sex with her/him shouldn't affect your decision.

On the other hand, if you're not sexually attracted to the candidate, you're not going to have a negative intuition on the person. It's neutral — a non-issue. Any negative hunch you do have is probably going to be grounded in something meaningful or relevant.

Bottom Line: Listen to your gut in the negative more than in the affirmative.

Related Post: Asking Questions in the Negative: What Do You Regret? How Did You Fail? There is a penetrating quality to negative framing.

(The above insight comes from Auren Hoffman.)

12 Responses to When to Trust Your Gut

  1. Keith says:

    Negative intuitions are just as easily corrupted by biases, just different biases (e.g., discriminatory biases).

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    We seem to be more aware of discriminatory biases though….

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    With fear it’s important to ask “Why am I feeling this?” Sometimes the feeling of fear is rooted in something real. Sometimes it’s just fear of the unknown…

  4. Willy says:

    I wonder how this varies across people who are positively/negatively inclined. For example, I typically start with my default response as a no. I am open to being convinced, but I come from a place of no. Does this apply to me? I think it does, but I’m not sure.

  5. J says:

    (Just adding a response to close an open HTML tag in planettelex’s post. Hope this works.)

  6. jhust says:

    I don’t think that’s enough Ben. We have other biases (against short people, for example), that can adversely affect hiring decisions. It’s not clear that we can just step outside of our biases or throw off the effects of socialization when we make decisions – regardless of how aware we are that they exist in the abstract.

  7. awans says:

    Jhust, I saw you had a longer response here:

    link to stuckk.net

    I think your point that we should do some sort of empirical investigation of when we’re biased is correct, but far more easily said than done.

    “My gut has been right more often than not when it tells me to stay away.”

    I think the mistake here is simply that when we avoid people the consequences are unobservable or at least far more difficult to guess. How different would my company / this person have been if I had in fact hired them? I’m not sure how you’d go about trying to answer that.

  8. Not sure if I agree across the board, but there is one time when I suggest following your gut instinct: when it first crosses your mind to fire someone.

    I’m an efficiency consultant and a large chunk of my consulting work involves eliminating certain positions or departments… sometimes for budget reasons, but overwhelmingly because certain people/positions are simply not contributing to the growth/health of the company. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard clients say that they wish they’d fired X years ago, instead of letting [Y bad behavior] continue on as long as they did.

  9. Planettellex says:

    Is someone’s intuition about a person/event the same thing as one’s feeling about that thing? If so, the feeling of fear is one from of ‘negative intuition’. I’d be wary of every granting fear/suspicion priority when a more detached & systematic assessment of the situation suggests there’s little reason not to go ahead with some action.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    In the end biases are biases and they will affect positive and negative intuitions. I agree that there are biases that affect negative intuitions.

    My personal experience is that negative intuitions tend to be more reliable than positive ones.

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes — no one ever says “I wish I had fired John Doe later.”

  12. Aatash says:

    This reminds me of Socrates, who apparently had a “divine sign” speak to him, which many today consider a reference to intuition. And this sign only told him when he was about to do something wrong. See here:
    link to ndpr.nd.edu

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