The scientific skinny on "gut feelings"

Ransom Riggs

People talk a lot about "going with their gut" when it comes to making big decisions, from sports heroes and military commanders to the President. Such intuition has long been scoffed at by the scientific community, but a recent article in Psychology Today reveals that there's really something to it: "Think of [gut feelings] as rapid cognition or condensed reasoning that takes advantage of the brain's built-in shortcuts. The best explanation psychologists now offer is that intuition is a mental matching game. The brain takes in a situation, does a very quick search of its files, and then finds its best analogue among the stored sprawl of memories and knowledge. Based on that analogy, you ascribe meaning to the situation in front of you."

Fair enough -- we've all had moments when we've felt strongly, for no discernible reason, about a particular choice -- but where does the gut come into it? Turns out "the gut itself literally feeds gut feelings; think of butterflies in the stomach when a decision is pending. The gut has millions of nerve cells and, through them, a "mind of its own." Still, gut feelings do not originate there, but in signals from the brain."

There are certain decisions that "gut feelings" are great at making, and other situations where your gut can lead you astray. When answering test and trivia questions, for example, the gut is often more useful than the brain; when test subjects think about their answers too much, they're frequently wrong. On the other hand, the gut is a terrible decision-maker when it comes to stock picks: chances are, if your gut is telling you to buy a stock that's been on the upswing lately, a lot of other people's guts are saying the same thing; jumping on the bandwagon is rarely a good way to make a buck in the market. So if you know when to "go" with your gut, and when to ignore it, psychologists say you're ahead of the game.