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Should You Go With Your Gut Instinct? Science Suggests Yes

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Feb 20, 2020

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A new study validates the saying “go with your gut,” finding that second guesses are usually more faulty than our first. The researchers suggest it’s because of people’s tendencies to give undue importance to new information.

The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, followed more than 50,000 predictions of match outcomes during the 2017-2018 English Premier League season recorded on a popular betting website. Predictions could be changed at any point leading up to the match in question, though few users availed of this option — on average, only 15 in 380 predictions were updated by the bettor, and of these, most were made at the last minute.

These second-guesses tended to be 17% less accurate than the first predictions, Big Think reports.

So if second guesses are more likely to be wrong than first guesses, why don’t we go with our gut more often?


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Researchers in the latest study didn’t design an experiment that could answer the question, though they think it’s likely, given the last-minute nature of the prediction updates, second guesses were based on new information. “We can only speculate, but we might imagine that game players input their initial forecast, following which they look at the latest online betting odds on the match, or look for other information which might affect their judgment, such as news on team selection for the match,” they write in the study.

It’s a theory that fits in with previous, related research into how we make choices — research that dates back to the early 1990s but still holds. Experiments led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, Ph.D., found that when people have to explain the reasons behind their choices, they make worse ones. In other words, decisions made not with gut instinct but with analysis — which can be explained in a way instinct often cannot — ended up being less the rational consideration we like to think they are, and more rationalization. Intuition might be our default, but given that most major decisions have to be explained and justified to others, our brains push us to choose to what they can explain, rather than what they can’t.

The phrase “gut instinct,” actually, undercuts a first-guess process that involves a lot of the mental assessment and rational consideration that our brains do behind the scenes. Our brains, without our conscious awareness, are constantly processing stimuli by comparing new information and experiences to our previous knowledge and memories and issuing predictions that float behind the scenes. This allows us to react to situations in an optimal manner, explains neuroscientist and psychologist Valerie van Mulukom, PhD, writing for The Conversation.

Gut instinct, also known as intuition, “occurs when your brain has made a significant match or mismatch (between the cognitive model and current experience), but this has not yet reached your conscious awareness,” van Mulukom writes. But because most of this processing occurs unconsciously, we’re unlikely to be able to explain it, and hence, are susceptible to second — less correct, but more consciously explainable — guesses.

Unfortunately, some of us are more prone to second-guessing than others: “maximizers” are people who obsess while making a decision, fret about the decision chosen, and second-guess themselves because, well, FOMO, while “satisficers” more easily make a decision, stick with it, and live with its consequences, according to psychological theory.

“Identifying the ‘right’ choice can be a never-ending task (for a maximizer),” write the authors of a 2011 paper exploring the differences between maximizers and satisficers. “Feelings about which option is best can always change in the face of new information. Maximizers might be unable to fully embrace a choice because they cannot be absolutely certain they chose the best possible option.”

Unfortunately, chronic second-guessing and doubting one’s initial judgment can have a mental health toll. People who do this consistently are also more prone to mood swings, lower self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, according to a series of five studies led by Ohio State University psychology professor Herbert L. Mirels, Ph.D. They also expressed a greater need for approval from others.

“High self-doubters, because they give diminished weight to their own interpretations and perspectives, are, so to speak, not well ‘centered,'” Mirels said in a research brief published by the American Psychological Association. “We believe that this is why they are prone to having their moods buffeted about by changes in their immediate circumstances.”

Regardless, it’s pretty clear: second-guessing makes us unhappy — whether because, with infinite possibilities, it’s not a satisfying exercise or because it’s simply a poorer, less correct choice. For the most part, particularly in areas of expertise, where one already has a lot of previous experience against which the brain can compare a new situation or piece of information, our gut instincts tend to be better — even if they’re not always right.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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