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Gut Or Brain?

Gut or Brain?


“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain”

Leonardo da Vinci



Imagine the scene – you’re at a yearly shareholder meeting and the CEO of a huge, global company stands up and announces a whole new, drastically different strategy. One that’s based on nothing but their gut feeling.


You can imagine the disbelief, right? The heckling, the shouts of the shareholder.  Surely a decision as important as this should be thought out carefully, deliberately and rationally, possibly with a room full of consultants. Isn’t this what you learn in business school?  We need project plans, heat maps, analysis, risk scenarios! Won’t someone think of all the paperwork?!


In some situations, we trust our gut. Walking down that dark alley late at night feels wrong, so we trust our gut and take the lighted path instead. Why is trusting our gut here okay, but not in other situations?


Gut feelings are messages from the insula and the amygdala, which are part of your limbic brain – the bit that deals with emotions (we talk a bit more about the structure of your brain and how it works here). It’s these messages that tell us when something feels right or wrong – so our gut feelings actually come from our brain. So why is it that we still don’t trust them? Why are some decisions seen as right, and some seen as wrong?


The subject of decision making, and how we make decisions is huge in cognitive psychology. I won’t go into all the details here but trust me when I say that things are a lot more complex than they seem! However, going back to the CEO example that I began with, we’re looking at two different decision-making approaches: evidence based (Paperwork! Consultants! Analysis! Project plans!), and emotions based – what we call ‘gut feelings’. It doesn’t have to be one or the other however, the best decision makers use both evidence and emotion.


We can see this from an experiment conducted by a group of British researchers, where they tried to see who out of 118 professional traders and 10 managers at investment banks was better at picking stocks. The result? The best traders were those that relied on a combination of analytics and their guts. What does this mean? In short, they were good at gathering information from a wide range of sources – emotion AND evidence.


In an example from real life, I was recently speaking to a business friend of mine that I’ll call Connor. He’s just taken over a large European operation and wanted to ask me for advice. Connor is a very deliberate, thinking, evidence-based person, and I could see his eyes sharpen as I spoke to him about trusting his gut, making bold decisions and forming fast analyses. He didn’t buy it.


I can see Connor’s point of view. While Connor and I were talking, I was receiving messages from another person I’m coaching – John. John is very high profile, and very recently, in a very public situation in front of the world’s cameras, he made a decision that went badly wrong. He made a bold decision without consultation or information from others, based solely upon his gut feeling. It wasn’t the right call, and everyone knew it.


Now, I wasn’t trying to tell Connor to only trust his gut and ignore everything else – John is a cautionary example of that! But I did want him to understand that ignoring his ‘gut feeling’ was just as bad.


Something I’ve noticed over the past few years is that while the speed of change is increasing significantly, as leaders our decision making is getting slower. My gut tells me that one of the reasons for this is that we have too much data – we can analyse ourselves to death, look at every angle and every possible output. We can tweak variables, change parameters, and using data, model hundreds of different scenarios. This doesn’t speed up our decision making though – it paralyses us. This is why we need leaders who can make speedy, and what some might see as ‘risky’ decisions. Someone has to get us moving!


So, how do you become that kind of leader? Well, you need to start trusting your gut.

In my job of studying behaviour, or interpreting human signals, I often get asked by people to explain why some people do certain things. Social emotions such as anger, empathy, envy and shame shape strategic interactions, as they not only influence the behaviour of those who experience them, but also of those who interact with them. These emotions can drive behaviour and decisions. Sometimes, I explain that for people it just feels emotionally right, it just feels like the right thing to do. Other times people say to themselves “Something about this just does not feel right”.  And then they seek other sources of data. 


When we make a decision based on ‘gut-feeling’, that decision feels right to us but we often have a hard time explaining why. The bit of our brain that gives us our gut feelings isn’t the same bit of the brain that deals with language – this is why we can rationalise our decision afterwards but can’t explain it in the heat of the moment. The important bit here is not that you don’t know why you’re making a decision – you do! – it’s that you just can’t immediately explain your reasons.  


A really good example of this is a story I read in the New Scientist about Michael Riley.  Michael was a radar operator in the British Navy during the first Gulf war, who during the second day of the ground offensive against Iraqi troops trusted his instinct that a blip on his radar screen was an incoming enemy missile rather than an American fighter jet, even though the two signals looked identical. He fired two surface-to-air missiles and single-handedly saved a battleship. Yet he couldn’t explain why he felt so fearful about those blips, why he was so convinced the blip was a missile and not a friendly plane. It wasn’t until several years later that the British Navy discovered how he did it – that he had unconsciously picked up a subtle discrepancy in the timing of the radar signal. Michael knew what he was doing in the moment – his ‘gut feeling’ told him so. He just couldn’t explain it in the moment. He used a combination of evidence AND emotion to make the right decision.


My worry is that when you introduce a process or rely solely on evidence, you sometimes eliminate the spark of intuition and you suppress your initial gut feeling. You’re ignoring your own evidence, just because you can’t articulate it immediately.


I love the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell takes an interesting approach to the conventional wisdom that we will almost always make better judgements and decisions when we have as much information as possible. Instead, he argues that our subconscious brains can actually process the answer we need in less than two seconds using a thin-slice of data. I could talk about Blink all day, but the main points I took away are:


  • Quick decisions are every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

  • Your gut tells you when to be wary and when to be trusting.

  • Our snap judgments can be educated and controlled.


So, how can you apply this in your everyday life? How do you educate and control your gut-feelings? Here are a couple of tips for you to try this week:


  • Follow your Hunches: The gut does make decision-making faster and easier, but that alone isn’t why it’s so powerful. Relying on your gut can also lead to decisions that result in better outcomes.

  • Balance your Heart and Head: While your mind is rationalising all the reasons you logically make this decision, your gut has been listening and cataloguing every sign and red flag.

  • Refine your Sensitivity:  Make space for intuition to grow by practising paying more attention to it.

  • Put Intuition Front and Centre: Consider changing up the way you make decisions. If a decision usually comes after intensive analysis, experiment with using a combination of data and intuitive thinking.


The Mindset of a Winner © is an intensive coaching programme brought to you by one of the world’s leading names in performance Dr Maurice Duffy. From elite football, cricket and rugby to the global businesses and international politics, Maurice’s expertise is behind some of the world’s most successful leaders and teams.