What do gut decisions reveal about us?

New research by the American Psychological Association shows that people who make decisions based on their gut feelings are more likely to stick to them.

Since the times of Ancient Greece, our behavior has been analyzed using the dichotomy of reason versus emotion.

According to some commentators, Plato believed that if we are to be functional and make the best decisions, we must make sure that emotions are controlled by the strong hand of reason.

The philosopher used his famous charioteer allegory to describe reason as the charioteer, and emotions and appetites as unruly horses. Since then, however, modern science has rehabilitated the role of emotions, particularly in decision-making.

Neuroscience has revealed that emotions are at the basis of our choices, and if anything, we use our reason to postfactually justify the decisions that our emotions have already made for us.

In this context, our so-called gut feelings are more precious than we might have once thought. New research finds that intuitive, feelings-based decisions give people a sense of conviction that deliberative decisions do not.

Moreover, people who trust their gut feelings are likely to see such intuitive decisions as a more accurate representation of their true, authentic selves.

The new study was conducted by Sam Maglio, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada, and Taly Reich, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

The American Psychological Association published the recent findings in the journal Emotion.

Studying two types of decision-making

Maglio and Reich carried out four experiments that included more than 450 participants in total. In the experiments, the participants had to choose between equally appealing options, such as different but equally attractive apartment rentals, DVD players, mugs, and restaurants.

The researchers asked the volunteers to make the decisions either based on their gut feelings, or in a logical manner that weighed the pros and cons.

After making the decision, the participants were asked several questions about their choice, such as, "To what extent do you think the DVD player you chose reflects your true self?"

The study showed that participants who made intuitive decisions based on their gut feelings were more likely to see those decisions as reflecting their true self, defined as the self that "represents who a person really is inside," instead of how a person behaves "outwardly."

Additionally, people who chose intuitively were more likely to share their decision with others. In one experiment, participants were asked to email their choice of a restaurant to their friends. People who made gut-based choices were more likely to do so than those who chose deliberatively.

"This suggests that focusing on feelings doesn't just change attitudes — it can change behavior, too," comments Maglio.

Gut feelings can help you stick to a routine

Maglio also shares the significance of these findings. "We offer what we believe to be a novel and unique approach to the question of why people come to hold certain attitudes," he says.

"Focusing on feelings as opposed to logic in the decision-making process led participants to hold more certain attitudes toward and advocate more strongly for their choices."

"Our research suggests that individuals focusing on their feelings in decision-making do indeed come to see their chosen options as more consistent with what is essential, true, and unwavering about themselves."

Sam Maglio, Ph.D.

However, the researcher warns that this type of decision-making could prove useful in some cases, but detrimental in others.

Feeling-based decisions can be great if we're trying to form a new habit or stick to a routine. For instance, choosing a type of diet based on one's gut feeling could help the person stick to the regimen.

"When digging our heels in is a good thing, like making sure we hop on the bike every day, there's little downside and a lot of benefit. But dug-in heels give way to stubbornness and isolationism in the blink of an eye," says Maglio.

"When our political attitudes are made intuitively and make us certain that we're right," he explains, "we shut ourselves off from the possibility that we might be even a little bit wrong. For this reason, perhaps a bit of the openness facilitated by deliberation isn't a bad thing after all."