Trusting Your Gut Feeling: Helpful or Irrational?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is it a good idea to trust your gut feeling? Is making decisions based on a “feeling” irrational? Can your gut feeling lead you wrong?

Both Brené Brown and Malcolm Gladwell seem to think that trusting your gut feeling is a powerful process and allows us to make quick and intuitive decisions. However, Gladwell does point out some flaws with this type of snap decision-making.

Keep reading to learn what Brené Brown and Malcolm Gladwell have to say about trusting your gut feeling

Trusting Your Gut

Using your intuition and trusting your gut feeling may seem like a straightforward process. After all, you’re probably already doing it unconsciously and automatically. However, as Brené Brown notes, many of us struggle to use intuition successfully. She argues that often, this is because we’re wary of accepting our gut feelings. 

According to Brown, this wariness comes from a combination of a lack of trust in our own judgment and the brain’s overwhelming need for certainty. Because we don’t trust ourselves to intuitively make the “correct” decision, we don’t feel certain that our gut feeling is right. Instinctively, humans hate uncertainty—and that hatred makes us reject the “uncertain” gut feeling.

How can we learn to overcome our fear of uncertainty (and, consequently, become comfortable with following our intuition)? Brown suggests embracing faith. She doesn’t necessarily mean embracing religious faith; more, embracing the belief that things will work out, even if you can’t be certain that they will. Faith requires you to bravely let go of your fear of uncertainty and decide that even though you can’t be sure what’s ahead, you’re going to move forward and act anyway. 

(Shortform note: Brown doesn’t explore in detail the link between embracing faith and embracing intuition. One theory is that having faith helps you to use intuition because you become willing to act on your gut feeling, despite the risk that it’s wrong, because you have faith that it might be right.)

Should We Always Follow Our Intuition?

Is intuition always a useful process, and should we always have faith in our gut feelings? Perhaps not: As Malcolm Gladwell notes in Blink, the process of intuiting isn’t perfect, and it may not always lead to “correct” judgments.
(Note that Gladwell refers to intuition as “unconscious thinking,” a term we’ll also use when discussing his work. Brown’s definition of intuition fits neatly with Gladwell’s concept of unconscious thinking: Both authors view this type of thinking as a powerful process that can lead us to make good decisions quickly, without realizing we’re doing it.)

As Gladwell explains, sometimes, if we’re under stress, pressed for time, or have strong biases, our unconscious thinking can malfunction. The brain may make a faulty snap judgment that’s based on irrelevant, incorrect, or superficial information, rather than on the full breadth of the information available to it.

For instance, imagine a person has an ingrained unconscious bias that female medical professionals are usually nurses, not doctors (a bias that exists, according to some research). If this person seeks treatment at a health facility and is greeted by a female clinician, their bias may overwhelm their unconscious thinking, leading them to intuitively believe that the clinician is a nurse, not a doctor, and greet them as such. If their unconscious mind had looked deeper at the situation, it may have noticed that the clinician wore a name tag identifying her as a doctor. However, overwhelmed by bias, it failed to do so, leading to the faulty snap judgment.

This flaw of intuition doesn’t necessarily mean that we should have no faith in it, however: Our intuition does frequently get it right. Furthermore, as Gladwell notes, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of unconscious thinking going wrong. One approach he suggests is to try to overcome the unconscious biases that sway your intuition in the wrong direction. You can do this by repeatedly exposing yourself to people or situations that challenge that bias. For instance, the person in the example above might try to always see female doctors rather than male ones. This will help their brain grow accustomed to the idea that women can be doctors as well as nurses, thus reducing their bias.  

Trusting Your Gut Feeling: Helpful or Irrational?

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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