Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Choosing Between Your Gut and Your Mind: Why Limit Yourself?

Different circumstances may require different cognitive strategies. Be flexible.

This post is in response to
Trusting Your Gut: Maybe It's Not What You Think
Yana Hoffman, sculpture; Hank Davis, image. Used with permission
Source: Yana Hoffman, sculpture; Hank Davis, image. Used with permission

By Hank Davis, Ph.D

I’m the author of Trusting Your Gut: An Excuse for Not Thinking? which appeared on my Caveman Logic blog. Yana Hoffman’s article which appeared here was a well-received response to mine. On the face of it, we seemed to disagree pretty substantially. Yet when I read her article, I found myself nodding in agreeing with it. How can that be?

I’ve thought about this a lot and wondered whether I was just influenced by her flowing prose and admirable self-disclosure. But I think it’s more than that. I now believe that Yana and I are talking about two different kinds of situations, and the appropriateness of using “gut wisdom” may differ between those situations. Yana’s article involved knowing what was right for her and predicting how she’d feel about her decision in the future. Would she be filled with regret or would she be at peace with her choice? Ultimately, Yana did not depend on logic or conscious verbal reasoning to answer that important question; she turned the matter over to her “gut.” That turned out to be a wise thing to do, and she recommends the process to others, as opposed to the position I took in my article.

Here’s the thing: Yana was talking about making predictions about herself. And rather than struggling to name all the variables involved in her choice, she focused on the feelings associated with those factors, and she let her gut predict the way she’d feel down the road. Put simply, she let emotions predict emotions. That’s probably a good idea.

The situations I was discussing in my article involved making predictions about events (not feelings), and those events were external to myself. Those two differences are central to why I think Yana and I can both be right. Here’s another example of the kind of circumstances I had in mind when I wrote my original article, and why Yana’s approach would have been wrong for it. Fair warning: This example involves the business of baseball. I know that won’t intrigue many of you, so I hasten to add that my example can be generalized far afield: Please stay with me.

Five years ago, my favorite team, the Phillies, had a player (I’ll leave actual names out of this) on their Spring Training roster. Roster space is limited and somebody had to go. They decided to let him go in favor of Player B. Player B is now out of baseball–not one of 30 Major League teams wants him. Player A–the one the Phillies unceremoniously dumped–is thriving. In fact, the Phillies, themselves, are at this point hoping to sign him to a one year contract that may be worth in excess of $10 million.

How did this happen? Baseball is a game rich in empirical data and statistical descriptions of performance. Unfortunately, the Phillies five years ago were “old school” and valued the gut impressions of their scouts more than quantitative information. They paid the price. Had the Phillies’ front office been trying to predict how their decision would feel five years down the road, I would be inclined to trust Yana’s approach. But as for the decision of whom to keep and who to let go? Give me hard data and informed choices anytime–whether you’re wondering whether to invade Iraq or keep a left-fielder on your major league roster.

Read Yana Hoffman's article here.