Why Gut Decisions Are Sometimes Wrong

by Colin Shaw on May 12, 2015

There is a certain romantic notion that we sometimes just know things in our gut. We equate this to wisdom or expertise. In truth, when your gut instinct turns out to be right, it is a result of the complicated system of decision-making your brain employs.

NPS®ychologist and ProfessorDaniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, explains why this is in his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”. He describes two systems in our brain that explain our thought processes. He gave them the fictional names System 1 and System 2. These fictional depictions of our brain represent how we access information and how much energy we use to do so.

System One: The Intuitive Thinking System. This system represents our automatic thinking, the intuition. This system facilitates the easy to access information the brain uses to interpret a situation.

System Two: The Rational Thinking System. Unlike System One, this system is more methodical and logical. It requires more energy and requires attention.

Kahneman explains that System One is at work when you look at a photo, interpreting the image, supplying you with your related personal experiences. It’s fast and effortless. On the other hand, System Two emerges to take over when you are working on a math problem. It is deliberate, slow and requires both effort and concentration. These two systems work together in your brain, and each takes a share of the load of your thinking. Because it requires less effort than System Two thinking, you typically access your System One thinking more frequently than System Two. For this reason, Kahneman describes your System Two as “lazy.”

Your intuition is your System One at work. The main function of your System one is to help you interpret your world and determine normalcy. As a result, it is always looking to connect situations to make a coherent interpretation. This connection is jumping to conclusions, or what we romantically refer to as “your Gut telling you something.”

It’s up to System Two to come in and confirm these conclusions. However, since it is lazy, it doesn’t. Your System Two is often content to let System One make its interpretation and state its findings as fact.

MinuteEarth illustrates how System One can jump to conclusions about the weather.

“This is Your Brain on Extreme Weather, By MinuteEarth


MinuteEarth points out an important concept about how the media influences those System One conclusions. The emotionally charged words they use influences System One’s conclusions. “Snowmageddon” evokes an emotional image that can create a dire interpretation of what might otherwise have just been called a heavy snowstorm.

We are at our heart, pattern-seekers. We need to make sense of the random occurrences we experience. However, there is no way for a single person to have enough of these occurrences to make a sampling large enough to be an accurate interpretation. They are at their worst, stereotypes and prejudices, and at their best, misguided and faulty logic.

Essentially, your gut instinct is a chance prediction by impulsive thinking. This fact is why dealing with Customers is so difficult. Most organizations make the mistake thinking Customers are rational beings and only make decisions logically. Nothing could be further from the truth in both Business-to-Consumer and Business-to-Business situations, we know that Customers are irrational. Therefore, when we design new experiences we ensure we build this thinking into the new design.

Your gut may be telling you that there is a causal relationship between the events you are interpreting, but that doesn’t make it so. We are irrational by nature, so in many ways, we like the idea that there is a little voice inside of us that steers us right. But the fact is, that voice isn’t steering at all. It’s biased and in most cases, wrong. It’s just that sometimes you get lucky.

What do you think? Is our gut instinct a valid resource for making decisions? I’d be interested to hear your opinions in the comments below.

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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

Colin ShawWhy Gut Decisions Are Sometimes Wrong

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