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What is Gut Feeling? Is Gut Feeling Reliable?

Joanna is an online writer who enjoys researching historical and scientific topics.


What is “Gut Feeling”?

Intuition can be defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without conscious reasoning. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, and economist defines intuition - or gut 'instinct' or 'gut feeling' - as “thinking that you know without knowing why you do.” Intuition is a cognitive process, faster than we realize and very different from our habitual, step-by-step way of thinking. Intuition comes from the root of a word that carries the meaning of “to guard, to protect.”

Intuition is better explained as a predictive processing framework. When confronted with incoming sensory information, together with our current experience, our brain will constantly compare it with stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences to predict what will happen next. When something unusual happens, something unpredictable, the brain will updates its cognitive model to prepare to deal with the current situation at best. All these situations happen automatically and subconsciously. In other words, the “gut feeling” we felt is when our brain made a significant match or mismatch, between the cognitive model and current experience, yet this cognitive model has not yet reached conscious awareness.

Our intuition works best when our brain is confronted with unusual information regarding an area we have a lot of experience, the brain can match the current situation with previous information to predict what happens next. Even though it gives us confidence in our decision-making, the problem with confidence is not an accurate predictor.

Several Views on Intuition

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explained intuition operates fast, subconsciously, and automatically. The other general mode of thinking is known as analytic thinking which operates at slow, conscious, logical, and deliberate. While interviewed at McKinsey Quarterly on the topic of Strategic Decisions, Kahneman says that intuition can be trusted when under time pressure for a decision. However, intuition cannot be taken as a key point. Because it might be ruled by overconfidence, and overconfidence is an illusion determined by the quality and coherence of the story you can construct not logic. As long as people can construct a simple and coherent story, they will feel confident with their intuition regardless of how unlikely it is in reality.

Henry Bergson, a philosopher, pinpoint intuition as a simplexity. “ It broadens our lived experience to encompass more than the rational and the obvious”

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst defines intuition as the “perception of the possibilities inherent in a situation”. Intuition is always juxtaposed with mystical, vague, and indeterminate when it was rather something precise and has its special ways of knowing and differentiating experience and reality. Jung theorized that intuition can be explored through the lens of intuition. it is something that does not obey the laws of time, space, and causality that “govern” our conscious thinking. Unconsciousness is an area of life that is unknown, unexplored, and beyond our understanding, until it reaches our consciousness.

Charles Darwin defines instinct as something that is inherited and free from influence such as experience. However, Jean-Pierre Changeux, a modern neuroscientist, disagrees and states that our instincts are subject to change over time. There was a theory that our brain will retain everything that it has perceived. However, our cerebral cortex indeed has millions of uncommitted neurons that fuse when new information were gathered yet, the fusion isn’t permanent unless it is subsequently used and strengthened. In this case, instinct cannot be an inherited behavioral pattern but based on previous experience. Instinct is an assumption you made despite a lack of apparent logic at the extent of enhancing previous experiences. A similar statement made by Donald Hebb in 1949, “neurons which fire together wire together”, supported the statement that instincts were born from previous experience. Furthermore, when neurons pair were multiply activated, it will induce synaptic strength thus increasing the prevalence of instinct.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker gives an example of how a citizen, Robert Thompson, enters a convenience store and has a gut feeling while the police officer failed. When Thompson entered the store, his mind created a conclusion based on the unconscious gathered information: the fear on the clerk’s face, a man in a store with a heavy coat on a hot day, another man in a car whose engine still running, convenience store robberies from the news reports, with frequent police visiting the store among other Thompson experience and knowledge we never know. These pieces of information give Thompson a sensation of the need to get out of the store immediately. As for the police officer, he saw different things. While Thompson only saw a single car in the parking lot, the police officer saw two giving the vibe of normal business transaction activity. And apparently, when Thompson entered the store gave a fearful signal yet he gave a relieved face when he saw the police officer.

Another example Becker tagged was our belief that dog has better intuition than us. In chapter 3 of his book, Becker mention interviewing a woman and she mentions Ginger(her dog) can sense untrustworthy new building constructor. Becker commented that ironically, Ginger is an expert in reading her owner's signal of reading the contractor.

Our brain is capable of multitasking without us realizing we did it. Take driving on a country road in the dark as an example. As you drive carefully, the music has your head up and down and you drum your fingers on the steering wheel. Suddenly your gut told you to drive more to one side of the lane and you follow without hesitation. To your amazement, you noticed that you just missed a huge pothole that could cause damage to your car. In reality, it could be that you unconsciously picked up information such as a far distance car(a local) in front of you made a similar small swerve and your brain decided to do the same.

How Reliable Our Intuition can be?

“You can trust your intuition when you have expertise.”

- Daniel Kahneman

We valued judgment more than our intuition. Unless it can be explained logically, human tends to judge their feeling rather than consider it. Logic has more place in the human decision rather than believing in intuition. However, our human brain has achieved more great accomplishments when at risk rather than in slow and logical ways of thinking. It is at risk our humans can perform what others claim as mystic and magical.

James Burke says our denial of intuition is because we are built to see what we want to see. Since our eyes were just the tools to capture and our brain will be the one to interpret.
According to Kahneman, intuition is reliable when these three conditions are satisfied: i. regular order (as in the game of chess); ii. lots of practice; iii. immediate feedback (you have to know almost immediately whether you got it wrong or right). Intuition can be trusted when under time pressure for a decision. However, intuition cannot be taken as a key point. Because it might be ruled by overconfidence, and overconfidence is an illusion determined by the quality and coherence of the story you can construct not logic. As long as people can construct a simple and coherent story, they will feel confident with their intuition regardless of how unlikely it is in reality.

We should never take our intuition for granted. But, not in all instances. One way our intuition fails us is when we piled up inaccurate information. Since intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic, and fast processing, it can sometimes be biased. But this bias can be diminished by taking in the common cognitive biases that coexist within that particular matter. Our ancestor relies much on intuition more than we do. Some of our intuition we should set aside is the need to store sugar. It is expected in hunter-gatherer time to stock up energy by binge eating a plate of donuts yet it will be unwise if we, in this current timeline, let our instinct win over in this incidence.

Another thing that can hinder the unerring of intuition is when our brain processes the misinformation gathered along with the other information.

A study by Kerem Oktar and Tania Lombrozo on authentic decisions has shown that decisions made based on intuition have greater authenticity and stronger commitment. For example, people emphasize intuition in deciding on a romantic partner. They also found that people felt more of themselves and certain in their decision-making when they made decisions based on feelings.

Experts such as firefighters, emergency paramedics, and airplane pilots often credit intuition - correct judgment and choices in an emergency with little information and time pressure. An example of this is “the miracle on the Hudson.” Miracle of Hudson is a story of a plane crash miracle. On January 2009, captain Sullenberger and co-pilot Skiles of US Airways Flight 1549 together with both of the plane’s engines disabled made a miracle landing when they choose to do an emergency landing on the Hudson river rather than land back at the La Guardia airport. Flight 1549 had just departed from LaGuardia Airport for Charlotte, North Carolina. Suddenly, a flock of geese disabled the engines. The plane landed safely with no casualties. All 155 people on the plane, miraculously, survived.

US Airways Flight 1549

US Airways Flight 1549

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Intuition is a gift we all have, whereas retention of knowledge is a skill. Rare is the expert who combines an informed opinion with a strong respect for his own intuition and curiosity. Curiosity is, after all, the way we answer when intuition whispers, “There’s something there.”

The book Thinking, Fast and Slow notes that in a long run, our intuition needed to be corrected. We need to assess our intuition using System 2 because intuition is not regressive and tends to be biased. As mentioned before,

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experiences of agency, choice, and concentration.

By correcting the intuition, the predictions will be equally likely to be overestimated and underestimate the true outcome. Errors may still present even when the predictions were unbiased but to a smaller range of errors and do not favor either high or low outcomes.

System 1 tends to manifest extreme predictions and is willing to predict rare events from weak knowledge. System 1 operates best as substitution and confidence where confidence is determined by the coherence of the best story you can compute with the current knowledge.

Whatever we stored in our brain can be accessed. At our unconscious level, there is “a particular flash of reality bursting forth in its unforgettable individuality, but infinite in its meaning and echoing capacity.” Our intuition enhances our sensitivity and perception, uncovering all we have experienced including the unpleasant, incomprehensible, and irrelevant.

Since instincts sometimes are biased, in some circumstances, instincts needed to be conscious to be accepted or ignored especially in unique scenarios. Surgeons sometimes will face immediate decisions due to the small opportunity available when operating. Instinct has been a knowledge learned in textbooks to be a subject handled in the court. A case, Mueller v. Auke, is about the parents of a child who file a lawsuit against a detective assigned to a hospital who removed the child from their custody after they refuse their child to undertake a medical test to aid a diagnosis. Despite the parents' fear, the court ruled that doctors ‘clinical instinct’ to take the test was a higher priority due to the instinct being experts in their field. The judge added, that due to the time pressure, the doctor’s decision need not have been a ‘perfect judgment’. As much as it is important an evidence to be based on medicine, ‘much of medical decision-making relies on judgment - a process that is difficult to quantify or even to assess qualitatively.’ Legal precedent in the past has supported clinical intuition. Intuition roles in medicine should not be discriminated against since more evidence has been shown regarding the experience-based origin of instinct.


Our fear is there for a reason. Take time to interpret it. The amygdala plays role in both human and animal fear. When animals are suddenly overcome with fear, they will form defensive aggression to protect themselves. Only humans will spend some energy thinking, “it’s probably nothing.” Only humans, who possess a powerful internal resource for self-care, choose to think the mind was just playing tricks on them and end up ridiculing the impulse.

Ever since civilization started, humans became less prone to the need to respond to every incoming fear. Police were here to battle crime, doctors are here to attend to physical pain, psychologists to help with the mind-related problem, etc. We started to rely on experts more so we have more time to do something else. We abandoned our impulses and rely on experts to tell us what to do.

Intuition involves all forms of consciousness and waits for meaning to emerge. The final product is a movement from intuition to the intellect; never the other way. Thus, creativity starts with intuition and is followed by intellectual thought. “When we engage with the particularity of what is in front of us, around us, or inside us, we allow ourselves to ‘dwell’ on the thing or experience, instead of superficially passing it by. Rather than understanding or knowing reality through an ‘interpretive matrix’ created by memory and the rational mind, we connect directly with it using all our senses and all aspects of our consciousness, and, in this way, we come to know reality more ‘fully’. In this way we can imagine the extraordinary and make unusual connections, opening pathways to new ideas and new ways of doing things.” The one episode of The Big Bang Theory. While working on his theory, Sheldon hums a song. He couldn’t remember what song it was and why it came to mind. As time passed and he unconsciously utter the word “beach” that was associated with the mystery hum. It turns out that while Sheldon is consciously focusing on his work, his subconscious was deciding whether Amy is worth the rush or not. And his subconscious was telling him what Amy meant in his life. Amy has made his life better.*

P/s: it was a song Darling by The Beach Boy. The lyrics “I was Living like half a man. Then I couldn’t love but now I can. More soul than I ever had. I love the way you soften my life.” explained how Amy has an impact on Sheldon's life.

Sources and Further Reading

ABC7 New York. (January 14, 2022). VAULT: 'Miracle on the Hudson' breaking news coverage from 2009.

Baldoni, J. (March 07, 2019). What Daniel Kahneman Knows About Your Gut (Decisions). Forbes.

de Becker, G. (2000). The gift of fear. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

McKinsey & Company. (August 14, 2019). Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut.

Patel S. B. (2014). Is the role of instinct important in medicine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 107(12), 464–465.

© 2022 Joanna Maxine Jack

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