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4 Things to Know About Gut Instincts

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Have you ever had a gut instinct that maybe led you astray or you "listened to your gut" and things turned out differently than you thought they would? Let's talk about this.
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Have you ever listened to that gut feeling you had, only for it to lead you astray? Sure, there were those times when you turned out to be right, but there are those other moments when things didn’t pan out the way you thought they would.

Today, we’ll focus on the role gut feelings play in making judgment calls in situations that range from stock trading to competitive sports. When should we rely on our instincts and when should we take a step back and evaluate the possibilities more carefully? What factors get mixed up in our gut feelings when we make choices on a whim?

Let’s get started.

1. Gut instinct can be a mixed bag.

At times, it can feel like our gut feelings are just as confused as we are. One of the problems with using your gut to make decisions is that emotions surrounding it are fickle. Your mood can change depending on the time of day and events that happen around you.

While wishful thinking can mistakenly convince us that we’ll achieve something, our instincts can also prevent us from actively pursuing our goals. Our instinctive side tends to think in the short term.

Glossophobia, known as the fear of public speaking, is one of the most common anxieties in the world. Just the thought of speaking in front of a crowd can strike fear into the hearts of most people. At the same time, we know that public speaking can be good for us. Practicing this skill develops confidence, allows us to share our ideas, and can further our careers. But even if we recognize these benefits, the first thought that pops up is, “I don’t want to do it.”

Gut feelings can instantly generate adverse reactions to anything uncomfortable. Unfortunately, these feelings have a hard time differentiating between good and bad types of discomfort. When you get mixed messages or feel queasy about something, think logically about whether or not the activity will help you become a better person in the long run.

2. Gut instinct is like golf.

Many of us fail to deliver our best when we’re aware that others are judging our work. It could be blanking out during a test, or fumbling to keep a friendly conversation going during a job interview. Just when it matters most, you panic.

Take golf players, for instance. A beginner player has to think carefully about foot placement, angle, and how to swing the club. An expert, though, already knows instinctively what to do. But when an expert stops using their instincts and starts thinking about how to do something, bad things happen. A study at the University of Chicago showed that beginner golf players play better when they think rationally about they’re doing. Expert golf players are the opposite—the more they think about it, the worse they get.

Practicing a task helps us improve our gut instinct in that area. We learn a skill until it becomes second nature. During stressful periods, though, this instinct can get wiped out when our rational side starts going into overdrive. From athletes to everyone else, our nerves can get the best of us in the worst situations.

If you’ve prepared for an event rigorously, let your instincts do the work. Keep calm by performing breathing exercises or picturing yourself in your ordinary practice scenario. After all, if you’ve done something a thousand times, you already know what to do.

3. Gut instinct isn't always right.

Man thinking while working on his laptop.

Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com

But just because you’re an expert doesn’t mean you’ll always get it right.

One of the best examples of using your gut instinct is picking stocks and investments. When people trade stocks, they’ll pick companies they have a good feeling about, or they’ll swear by a certain trading methodology. Many others turn towards the professionals for help.

Even though we can train our instincts to become better at a skill, it doesn’t mean we’ll be right all the time. Financial analysts don’t always predict trends correctly (an understatement in itself), while top athletes have off days.

Every situation has a number of ever-changing factors at play, making it hard to consistently make the right decisions. But what separates the experts from the novices is that experts tend to get better results over a long period of time. People who frequently face similar situations over and over will have a better idea of what to expect using their past experiences and knowledge.

4. Gut instinct can be trained.

“Listen to your gut” is such simple advice. By now, though, we know that it’s not that simple. Sometimes we need to rely more on logical thinking, while other times do require an instinctive response.

No matter how experienced we get, our gut isn’t always going to be right.

No situation is exactly the same, which can make predictions difficult. But our gut instinct gets a better idea of what to do when we exercise it more often.

If you’re still in the early stages of learning a skill, think carefully about your actions so that you can learn how to use your instincts. When you become more experienced in an area, you can (and should) rely more on your gut.