Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman: Never Trust Your Gut Unless You Can Say Yes to These 3 Questions
Are gut instincts the brilliant distillation of all our wisdom and experience, or just an expression of our brain’s laziness and biases? Do they lead us to oversimplify and stereotype or help us avoid danger before we can even fully process the threat?
These questions are the stuff of heated academic debate. Malcolm Gladwell famously laid out the pro-intuition case in his bestseller Blink, while Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman summed up the position of intuition skeptics in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
But while the experts argue, the rest of us have to go on and make real world decisions. Should we all ignore our guts or go with our intuition? The answer, according to Kahneman depends on the context.
Stroke of genius or dumb shortcut?
Kahneman’s problem with gut instincts — or what he terms our brain’s fast-thinking “system one” — is that it relies on rules of thumb that often turn out to be wildly wrong. We try to get a handle on how common something is by how many examples of that thing we can remember, for example. The problem with this is that it leads us to wildly overestimate the frequency of highly memorable but actually extremely rare occurrences, like airplane crashes. As Kahneman explains in his book, our intuition is riddled with these errors.
On the other hand, we all know intuition isn’t totally useless. If you get the feeling your spouse is angry with you, you had best head straight off to the florist’s shop. Or, consider the case of a veteran firefighter saving the lives of his men with a gut instinct that a particular blaze was about to turn deadly, a story Kahneman shares in his book.
So how can you recognize when your gut is about to save your life (or your marriage) and when it’s just a dumb shortcut?
According to ThinkAdvisor, during a talk at the World Economic Forum, Kahneman offered a thankfully simple answer to this decidedly hard question. It took the form of three questions. If you can say yes to each, then go ahead and trust your gut. Otherwise, you’d better check your instinct against some actual data and hard reasoning: