December 3, 2010 10:16 pm

Should we trust our gut instincts?

The Shrink

Each time we react to something with approval or recoil in disgust, our brain has been hard at work before we even begin to think consciously about the situation. Our instincts and experience are recruited to produce a “gut feeling”, a judgment that bubbles up from who knows where.

Gut feelings, intuitions and snap judgments have undergone a great revival in recent years, partly following the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio, who argued that if a part of the brain dedicated to processing emotion is impaired, rational decision-making also suffers. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell brought together further research supporting the idea that first impressions are often more useful than a lengthy analysis.

However, there are plenty of other studies showing that instant judgment isn’t terribly reliable. Gladwell himself acknowledges this, citing a survey of hundreds of US companies that revealed that most CEOs were tall. This suggests that we irrationally tend to associate height with leadership qualities.

The brain is subject to an extraordinary array of biases and flaws, and at any given time we could be responding to unexamined impulses, prejudices and addictions rather than truthful perceptions.

So what are we to do when faced with big life decisions with no way of knowing whether our gut feelings are trustworthy or not?

We might want to take as a model “expert intuition”, which is actually based on years of stored thought and experience. Our own snap judgments are more likely to be reliable in domains where we have acquired some expertise.

Our track record is also relevant. If you’re always losing on the horses, you probably shouldn’t believe that your next “intuition” will be the right one.

If, on the other hand, you tend to have successful hunches about property, perhaps you can allow yourself to trust them in the future.

We should bear in mind that our intuitions could be picking up on something important or merely betraying unconscious biases. So while it’s a good idea to take note of them, it also pays to get in the habit of double-checking our facts and options. Gut feelings work best in dialogue with rational reflection.

The Sage

Imagine that you are walking to work and you see that a small child has fallen into a pond and is floundering, in clear danger of drowning. No one else is around. What should you do?

You’d be very odd if you tried to answer this question by a process of rigorous rational deliberation. Almost everyone has a very clear moral intuition: wade in and pull the child out. But as the philosopher Peter Singer points out, we can draw out from that one specific intuition a more general moral principle: if you can save a life at relatively small cost to yourself, then you ought to do it. That’s why it would be wrong to walk on by.

What’s odd about this reasoning is that intuition appears to be doing all the heavy philosophical lifting. All we’ve done is elicit a gut response, and then extrapolate a general principle from it. This is not untypical of how moral philosophy works. What’s more, when moral intuitions clash with moral principles, that is more often taken as a reason to question the principle than to dump the intuition.

Does this mean that ethics is nothing more than the process of providing a respectable rational veneer for what are really just brute feelings? Hopefully not. That feelings are important to ethics is widely understood. Arguably, it is our capacity for empathy, not rationality, that lies at the basis of morality. This is why a psychopath is described as the person who lacks everything but logic.

That does not mean the rational mind is a mere “slave of the passions”, as the philosopher David Hume put it. Relying on our feelings is not the same as entirely trusting whatever we intuitively feel. Reason can expose some emotions as unjustifiable prejudices or irrational distortions. What it can’t do is provide the basic benevolent impulse that makes kindness possible. Moral intuition is not an alternative to reason, but its indispensable accomplice.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England

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