Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer

Trust Your Gut?

     I have to admit, a few of my friends raised eyebrows after reading my comments in the previous two columns about people who buy houses very quickly, presumably without extensive thinking. Is it possible that people can make accurate decisions very quickly?
     Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the bestselling book Blink, thinks so.  Gladwell gives many examples of people who have been able to make accurate assessments very quickly, without using a particularly logical process. One example concerned an ancient statue which was purchased by a museum after extensive research validating its authenticity. After the purchase, several experts, after seeing the statue for the first time, quickly sensed it was a forgery, but without being able to explain why.  “It doesn’t look right,” they suggested. Of course, it did turn out to be a forgery.  Gladwell’s book is about the ability to make very quick, but accurate decisions. 
     Gladwell calls this ability “thin slicing.” Most of us tend to call it intuition. Many people who buy a house quickly, for example, say something like, “As soon as I entered the house, I knew it was the right house. It spoke to me.”  
     You may trust your intuition. You may get strong feelings about a person, an environment, or a decision, and be tempted to go with your “gut” feeling.  We often hear the term “women’s intuition.” It’s probably true that women tend to trust their intuitive feelings, and it may also be true that their intuitive judgments are more accurate. This may be explained by the fact that women may be better at deciphering non-verbal signals.
     I once had a nursing student who told me of coming onto her shift at the hospital and being assigned to a post-surgical patient.  She was told that the patient was resting comfortably and stable. When she went to see the patient, his vital signs were fine, but she had an intuitive feeling that the patient was in danger. She did not know why, but decided, understandably, to keep a close eye on him. Of course, he did crash, and she was able to pick up on it quickly and save his life. She credits her “nursing intuition.” 
     This leads to an interesting fact about intuitive judgments. Some people are better at intuition than others. In fact, research suggests that intuition is very closely related to experience. In the example above, the nurse was an LPN with over 20 years experience.  She had seen many post-surgical patients. Although she could not identify a particular warning sign, she very likely noticed something subconsciously. 
     This, according to Gladwell, is how we are able to make quick decisions. We may perceive things, like facial expressions and eye movements, on an unconscious level and make quick associations to put our observations into context and, without conscious thought, “know” the truth about something. And we are often correct. 
     Of course, we can all think of intuitive judgments which have proved inaccurate. We can all think of instances when we had a negative first impression of a particular person but later found the person to be very different. We can easily make bad intuitive decisions about new jobs, investments, and big purchases. 
     So how, as critical thinkers, should we treat strong intuitive feelings? The short answer is: with caution. Even though our intuition may not be based on a logical cognitive process, we should not discard it. Our gut feelings may, in fact, be based on realistic assessments based on years of life experience. On the other hand, we should certainly not simply accept our strong intuitive feelings as we would facts because they may not be reliable. 
     I have a friend who is a child protective social worker.  He often gets a strong sense that there may be sexual abuse when he visits a home under some other pretext. Of course, he cannot act on his hunch; he has no evidence.  But he does pay particular attention to that family, in case more evidence turns up later. He tells me his initial feelings are accurate about 80% of the time.  
      Next month I’ll look at skepticism, a necessary condition for clear thinking.