The Downside of Following Your Gut

We are often told to follow our gut these days.  It’s not bad advice either!

I think some of the best decisions I have made were based on a strong intuitive sense that something was right for me.  After a lot of mulling over options and chronic indecision, my husband and I made up our minds to move to Wales quite suddenly, after spending a lovely afternoon in a garden in Wales.  We just had a flash of inspiration, and made the move within a few months.  An opportunity came up for a secondment at work, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do; I didn’t need to analyse it.  I started writing again after a break of several years, after an insight that came to me while meditating; I stood up and knew that I needed to be doing something creative, and I started writing the next day.  All three of these decisions were absolutely right for me.

Gut feeling is the limbic brain’s signal to us, based on it’s subconscious analysis of the options open to us.  And true, listening to our own intuition can often help us to tune into what we really want, and develop a clearer sense of the right choice for us at this particular time.  Intuition has been shown to be just as effective a way to make a complex decision as rational analysis.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought

However, psychologists have found a few cognitive biases that we are all prone to and we need to watch out for, especially when we are relying on intuitive decision making. The neural pathways in our brains develop in such a way that these biases are inevitable, as the more well used a pathway is, the easier it is for our brain to continue to use the same pathway. Simply being aware of these biases might help you to spot them in your own thinking patterns, and avoid falling into these common traps.

  1. The Familiar

We tend to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar.  We favour jobs that are quite similar to other jobs we have had.  We are more likely to take a job in place we know or take on a course with a college we have studied at previously.  If we are struggling with a problem at work, we will tend to favour the tried and tested solution rather than looking for a new way to solve it.  Sometimes, we just favour the status quo over making a change.  I know that I will certainly stay in a job unless I am pretty sure that the new job is considerably better than the old.  So, if you are struggling to make a decision, and one option is very familiar, while the other is less so, perhaps you should choose the unfamiliar option; your brain is has probably already overrated the familiar option and underrated the unfamiliar option when weighing them up.

2. The Default

We are also more likely to follow the “default” option.  If it is assumed that every employee will take out an occupational pension, unless they fill in a long form to say they do not want to, then the take-up will tend to be high.  If employees are assumed not to want a pension unless they fill in the form, then take-up will be lower.  If you find yourself clicking the button for the default option on your computer, or accepting the status quo rather than returning a form, just ask yourself – does the person or organisation who set up this default have your best interests at heart?  Do they know better than you do what the right option for you is?  (Sometimes, especially with computer programmes, the default genuinely is the best option for the average user; sometimes, however, the default option has been set up to suit someone who wants to sell us something or manipulate us).

3. The Crowd

If we do not have a strong opinion about something, we are very likely to simply follow the crowd.  This is not always a bad thing; after all, there are likely to be people in the crowd who know more about the options that you do, especially if you are pretty clueless.  But if you find yourself mindlessly following the crowd, do check in with yourself.  Is it likely that most of the crowd are able to make a better decision that you are in this situation, and that your needs are similar to most other people in the crowd?  If not, don’t follow them!

4.  The Plan

Simply asking people whether they intend to do something actually increases the likelihood that they will do it and getting them to think through how they will do it increase the chances of them doing it even more.  If you write down a plan for how you will find out about a course that you want to do, work out the route to the open day, think about what you will wear and what you will do when they get there, you are much more likely to follow through on your plan.  If you already have a plan to do something, make sure you are not over-committed.  Is this plan still the best option for you?

5. Confirmation

Once we think we know something, we look for information to confirm our beliefs and we discount other information.  If you already think you are no good at Maths, you will look for further evidence to corroborate this belief (maybe the test that went badly, or what a teacher said to you three years ago) rather than focusing on the evidence that might contradict your belief (the teacher that told you could pass with a little bit more work).  This is why people tend not to change their political or religious beliefs very often.  We often need to really work at being open to information that contradicts our beliefs.

6. Overconfidence

We usually tend towards optimism and overestimate our abilities and chances of success (unless we are prone to depression, in which case we tend to have a more accurate view).  Most of us find it hard to accurately assess our own potential and how likely we are to succeed.  Optimism can be very valuable in building resilience and the persistence to keep trying in the face of initial failure, but it doesn’t always lead to accurate predictions about the future.  When we are overconfident we may fail to take sensible preventative steps or develop contingency plans.  It’s great to be optimistic, persistent and resilient, but there is no harm in having a back up plan!

7. Loss

We hate loss.  And this tends to create inertia.  Psychologists have found that we are roughly twice as unhappy about losing something as we would be happy about gaining it.  Once we have something, we value it more than we would have done if we didn’t have it.  This is why free trials work so well; once we have that premium subscription to a service, we value it more and don’t want to cancel our subscription.  So, once you have been offered a job or a college place, you value it more than you did before the interview.  That is why it can be so hard to say no to a job offer.

8.  Short-Term

We are also very prone to valuing short-term gains over longer-term benefits (even more so if we are teenagers).  The short-term gain of earning some money to spend now often outweighs the longer term gain of studying for qualifications which may help us earn more money in the distant future.  Most of us could do with a little help to remind us to prioritise our longer-term goals – pensions, fitness, career development, savings, qualifications and so on.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try:

  • Thaler & Sunstein – Nudge
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow


Nudging People Towards Behavioural Change


There can be all sorts of reasons that we mind want to change someone else’s behaviour, but it’s often a frustrating task. On the whole, people carry on behaving as they have always done, unless some internal conflict causes them to change. Information by itself is not enough to change behaviour. We all know we should eat more fruit and vegetables, yet we carry on eating chocolate.

This  can be frustrating for people in the helping professions, policy makers, parents and spouses.  We can see how someone should change their behaviour for the better but we are powerless to make them change.

Fortunately there are some interesting findings about what actually does cause behaviour change, and we can use them to nudge people in the right direction. Paul Dolan has created the  MINDSPACE  model to help policy makers with problems as diverse as reducing crime and tackling obesity. These principles can equally be applied in organisations or when working with individuals.

– Maybe you are a career coach who wants to motivate a client to pursue her dreams or at least research her options thoroughly

– Maybe you are a mindfulness teacher who wants to encourage students to do a daily practice

– Or a Careers Adviser who needs a teenager to start getting up in the morning and get to training on time

– Or a teacher convincing Year 11 to start doing some revision

– Or anyone running an appointment system who wants customers to just TURN UP for their appointments.

Whatever challenge you are facing, there is something useful in this model for you. There are nine principles, and you can use MINDSPACE to help you remember them.

So, here goes….

Messenger – the person giving the message about behaviour change needs to be credible or likeable, as we are hugely influenced by who gives the messages. A role model who perceived to be similar to us will be influential, but so will a respected expert.

Incentives – we prefer to avoid losses rather then gain new things, so if you give somebody something and then attempt to take it away from them, they will value it more. That is why free trials work.  We also prefer small and immediate payoffs rather than larger payoffs in the future, so if you want to persuade someone to practice a new skill, focus on the benefit they will notice immediately.

Norms – we are stongly influenced by what other people are doing, and if in doubt we will follow the crowd. So if you want people to keep their appointments, put up a poster that says “90% of our customers keep their appointments and that helps us keep waiting times short” rather than “10% of our customers miss their appointments which makes waiting times longer”. People won’t feel bad about missing an appointment if they think everyone else is doing the same.

Defaults – we tend to go with the pre-set options unless we have a good reason not to. This is why Welsh Government have introduced a system whereby it is assumed you will donate your organs unless you actively opt out. Employers can encourage people to take up pensions by making this something that you actively have to opt out of.

Salience – we are drawn to new things and novelties, or things that seem particularly relevant to us. Presenting salads in a novel way can encourage people to eat them. Taking pupils out of school for a new experience can encourage changes.

Priming – if we are exposed to certain sensory cues, this can influence out later choices, without us having any awareness of the connection. Asking people whether they intend to do something in a survey actually makes it more likely that they will do it.  So, if you survey a year eleven group, and ask whether they intend to visit a college open day, you increase the number who actually attend.

Affect – emotional responses can override rational decision-making. If you get people into a good mood they will make more optimistic choices, while people in a bad mood will be more pessimistic. Creating a sense of hope with a teenager, for example, will make them more likely to take the risk of applying for a job or opportunity.

Commitment – once we make commitments public or write them down, we are more likely to follow through. Getting someone to write down their own action plan will increase commitment. We generally try to make our behaviour consistent with our public commitments.

Ego – If our behaviour and our beliefs about ourselves are in conflict, we will often change our behaviour, so gently drawing attention to a conflict between the two can be a great way to increase motivation to change. We like to behave in ways that allow us to maintain a positive image of ourselves and we like to believe we are more consistent than we actually are.

Is all this a bit manipulative? Well, yes it is.  We are using techniques that can alter people’s behaviour, outside their conscious awareness.

Is it unethical?  Probably not as long as we are acting in the other person’s best interests.  After all, our decisions are being influenced all the time by our perceptions  of the environment and in using the MINDSPACE principles, all we are doing is tweaking the environment to make certain decisions more likely. Is it more ethical to make a conscious decision to put fruit in the most high profile position in the canteen and nudge people towards buying it, or to leave the sweets there because that is where they have always been? I think the nudge is ethical, because it is done with the best interests of the diners at heart.

So, next time you need to persuade a student to practice, a customer to keep an appointment, a child to do their homework or a client to get out of bed in the mornings, think about how you can apply these findings!

For more reading on this subject I thoroughly recommend “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein.