Friday, May 9, 2014

Overhauling the Mind: Why "Gut Feelings" Can Be Unreliable




A “gut feeling” is an automatic, cognitive, short-cut that provides a crude, organic, meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept.

Life experiences are three-fold. First, they involve sensations,  real and/or imagined sensory stimulation from the environment such as light, sound, fragrance, texture, etc. Second, experiences require cognitions and perceptions. These are your thoughts about the sensory stimuli. Your eyes and brain may sense a light, and then your mind interprets, “Oh, the car in front of me just put on the brakes.” Third, experiences are bathed in varying levels of emotion. So, the car in front of you suddenly hits the brakes and you feel a quick tinge of fear that you may rear end the other car. Emotions are the body’s security system. They evolved as a mechanism to aid us in survival. Emotions warn us of danger and reward us for behaviors that have historically resulted in increased odds for survival of the species.

In the course of a lifetime, you have countless experiences covering innumerable concepts. Some of these experiences are available to the conscious mind, but most are not. It would be impossible to function if you had to process your lifetime of experiences every time you had to answer a question, make a decision, or assess a situation. So, the mind provides the short cut we call the “gut feeling.”

If I ask, “Do you like raisins?” the answer will lie in an overview of every life experience you have ever had with the concept called, “raisin.”

…raisins are dehydrated grapes
…the dancing California Raisins
…raisin bran cereal
…raisins look like flies
…raisins are high in antioxidants
…as a kid, I threw up after eating a box of raisins
…raisins are sweet
…raisins have a funny texture
…I got raisins in my lunchbox when I was in grade school
…raisins smell bad
…and on and on and on and on

But, since filtering through these millions of experiences would be impossible and impractical, your mind makes a snap shot using the most dominant, overshadowing emotion related to the concept called, “raisin.” This provides your gut feeling and your answer… “No, raisins are gross.”

The gut feeling is necessary to navigating the complex terrain of human life. Without it, we would be paralyzed. However, it is also the fundamental cognitive error that interferes with human advancement. Our nature, like all animals, is to accept gut feelings as “truth.” If I approach a squirrel with the intention of giving it a walnut, the squirrel’s gut feeling may be that I am a threat, so the squirrel runs away. The truth is that I intended to help the squirrel by giving it food. 


Intuition "feels" like truth, but is not truth. Truth is based in fact and possess objective reality. Gut feelings only sometimes coincide with truth. When a gut feeling is occasionally validated as actual truth, our nature is to interpret this as evidence of accuracy. However, we tend to ignore the more frequent occaisions when our gut feelings have been proven wrong.

So, if I am interested in finding actual "truth," then I must understand that my intuition is an extremely fallible resource, completely dependent on my very limited and unique fund of life experiences. To find “truth,“ I must test my gut feeling against objective litmuses like logic, mathematics, physical properties, etc. The gut feeling is a necessary place to start, but it can be a foolish place to end.

The ability to override “gut feelings” is the characteristic that enables the human to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to gut feelings. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, the advent of logic, mathematics, and the scientific method, has provided a means for humans to break the bonds of our animal nature and rise above superstition and intuition. It is a tragedy that so few take advantage of this magnificent opportunity.