"You can throw away the fig leaf of rationalism only if you don’t then descend into total chaos and irrationality.”Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
Every time I’ve had a hard-to-pin down feeling about something—what people typically mean by “gut instinct”—and ignored it, I’ve regretted it. It’s maddening because instinct feels hard to analyze, so the contributing factors seem ephemeral to reason after the fact. It also seems more connected to emotion than logic, which we’ve long been told (erroneously) leads to bad decisions.
Contrary to what many might think, intuition isn’t a snap decision, it’s a build-up of information you’ve processed over time without being overtly aware of it. It’s intimately connected to physical skills you have that you don’t have to think about—typing quickly, any kind of sport you might play, and yes, riding a bike. Neuroscientists refer to this as implicit or procedural learning*, and you’d not be able to navigate your daily life without it. There’s even a very specific part of your brain that seems to know when you’ve screwed up—that feeling you get when you almost finish typing in a phone number and you know it’s wrong? That’s your anterior cingulate cortex, in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex*. You should trust that more than your gut.
Many a blog post have been written about Jeff Bezos’ Type 1 and Type 2 decisions*—the first kind is expensive and hard to reverse, the second is a cheap rotating door you can come back through and unwind. So sure, if you’ve got instinct about a Type 2 decision, odds are you should go for it. But there’s one caution I have here: the same system that builds instinct also builds implicit bias.
Consider culture fit—plenty of organizations rely on this bit of ephemeral instinct when it comes to hiring, and it’s rife with bias. One strategy to counter this is that every time you feel a gut thing that isn’t covered in some policy, see if there’s one you can create around it, which should help tease out the potential underlying biases. In the case of culture fit, you could screen for whether their values align with yours. Which means you’d have to define and agree on your values, translating instinct into something everyone can agree on. So trust your gut, but have someone else gut check it for you.
No, I’m not going to mention “Blink” here. (Consider yourself warned about “How We Decide” as well.) If you really want to understand this kind of learning, here’s a few places to start.
“Decarte’s Error” by Antonio Damasio was the first time I was exposed to the idea that emotions, reason, and concrete thinking all contribute to how we make decisions.
I don’t agree with everything in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” but it’s a good start on the topic for people with little neuroscience background.
My favorite researcher and writer on this is Gary Klein. You can’t go wrong with nearly anything he’s written. Start with this Fast Company profile to get a feel for his work on decision making in high-tempo, high-consequence situations. Instead of studying people’s errors, he aimed to understand how they make good, high-quality instinctual decisions.
Then you can move on to some of Klein's meatier writing: