09 January 2007

Going with your gut instincts is not a bad idea

So many times when choosing a course of action my gut tells me to do “A”. All to often I stop, consider, then go for “B” and make the wrong choice. It would seem that trusting your instincts in some circumstances is the best choice of according to a study. Researchers at University College London who found making subconscious snap decisions is more reliable in certain situations than using rational thought processes.

Participants in the study were given a computer-based task and performed better when they were given less time to make their decisions. Ten volunteers were shown a computer screen covered in over 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the symbol. They were asked to decide which side of the screen the rotated image was on. Given a fraction of a second to look at the screen, the subjects were 95% accurate. But when given time to scrutinise the image the were just 70% accurate.

Dr Li Zhaoping, of UCL's Department of Psychology said: " You would expect people to make more accurate decisions when given the time to look properly. The conscious brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision - even when it is correct - leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts and at an immediate disadvantage. Falling back on our inbuilt, involuntary subconscious processes for certain tasks is actually more effective than using our higher-level cognitive functions."

Kim Stephenson, a psychologist researching some aspects of decision-making, said subconscious reactions could be an advantage in some situations. People and animals were designed subconsciously to recognise and fixate on anything out of the ordinary as it could help to identify and escape from predators quickly, and so has an evolutionary advantage.

He said: "Your subconscious mind is more useful for specific things, where you don't have time and need to react quickly. It's not to say that if you've got to make a decision you should make it in a fraction of a second . but your body is designed to do some things very quickly, so using instincts would be better there.


Elizabeth-W said...

I LOVE this kind of study. The stuff you sort of instinctively know to be true, even though it seems on the surface to be counterintuitive.
Like when I'm driving down the road clearly lost in my own thoughts, but my brain 'sees' the car in front of me stopping--the brakes are being slammed before I even know what is going on. (I'm not saying this happens a lot, just so you know;) )

jams o donnell said...

There you go Elizabeth... It was a report that caught my attention.. it certainly underpinds what we suspect to be true.

snowflake5 said...

I'm not so sure about this. Our Tone is a gut politician - the whole Iraqi adventure was based on him making a gut decision in Sept 2002 while on a visit to Dubya's ranch. He felt in his gut it was right and that there were WMD.

I think instinct can mislead because all of us are subject to bias and the bias is worse if unexamined, which is what happens in gut decision-making. I prefer the more strategic approach of Gordon Brown - I think it's more likely to lead to a correct decision.

Elizabeth-W said...

I've been thinking about this today-hadn't seen Snowflake's comment yet. But I was thinking/hypothesizing that this feature of the brain probably takes place in the really deep part, the reptilian part. Probably a survival part that is about food, safety, sex.
However, a woman who has had a history from early childhood of violent men in her life, and then dates the same type of guy is perhaps choosing with her reptilian brain rather than higher order thinking that says Stop! while this choice may feel good, it's really the opposite.

jams o donnell said...

Mow going to war is not a thing that should have been decided on a gut instinct ever, ever Snowflake! Good point though - the gut instinct is not the best choice for every situation. What would give me the right answer in a quiz is not what would help me plan the allocation of a large budget!

It certainly seems to be a very old response.. probably akin to that which alerts animals to the presence of predators. As for the issue of the woman, I think you could be on to something there