Gut instinct – to trust or not?

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How much should we really just ‘go with our gut feelings’?

information overload
As part of day-to-day living we have to process huge amounts of complex information from the world.

To cross a busy road for example – we need to work out how far away the next car is, how fast it’s travelling, how wide the road is and how long it will take us to cross the road. We have to automatically process all this information.

It takes the first 10 years of our life to develop the brain circuitry to do this. We call this hardwiring.

Professional athletes have developed neural pathways from years of practice – so they react automatically. A pro tennis player knows where a 120mph serve will bounce through instinct – s/he will pick up the opponent’s micro signals, muscle movements etc and process them in milliseconds, to be in the correct position to return the serve. This would be impossible through conscious thinking. Years of practice returning serves has created the hard wiring necessary to return serves instinctively.

The plastic brain…

The ability to create specialist brain circuitry is an advantage human beings have over all species. Animals don’t have the same ability to hardwire the brain – but as human beings we can adapt very quickly to our surroundings. The brain’s ability to reorganize and restructure itself is called neuroplasticity.


Neuroplastisity gives human beings a survival advantage. We are able to inhabit any part of the globe because our brain rewires itself to survive under different conditions. We simply would not get by if we were unable to hardwire complex tasks – freeing our conscious brain to focus on more challenging aspects.

Not so plastic fantastic

While neuroplasticity allows us to go through life hardwiring new brain structures it also brings its own problems. Take driving to work as an example – we set off and we arrive and often we can’t remember the journey because we’re on autopilot. Then one day we find ourselves driving to work when we should be heading elsewhere!

Mind the gap

Our brain also has a tendency to make sense of partial information and jump to conclusions, which is why we sometimes perceive things that aren’t actually there.

This is a survival instinct from our hunter gatherer days. For example, if we see a partial flash of what appears to be a tiger in the forest, our brains fill in the missing information to keep us safe – hence we perceive it as a tiger and prepare for action – even if it turns out not to be one!


It is easy to trick the brain – gut instinct can be wrong

While this survival technique is imperative, it has major drawbacks – our brain will often fill in the missing information and draw the wrong conclusions.

A fun example of this is illustrated via optical illusions such as The Kanizsa Triangle, which shows how our brain will ignore gaps and piece together a complete picture, perceiving things that aren’t actually there. (see below illustration).

These spatially separate fragments give the impression of a bright white triangle, defined by a sharp illusory contour, occluding three black circles and a black-outlined triangle.

We don’t see what’s there – we see what we expect to see!

 A and B are the same colour when viewed side by side but B appears lighter once the chess board is comolete. Another example of seeing what we expect to see rather than what’s actually there!


Another problem is that the brain can make false connections, which lead to labelling and categorising others. For example – a ‘high flyer’ or ‘deadwood’. Our brain stores these characteristics and any evidence to the contrary we simply cannot see because our brain already has this conceptual model. So if a ‘low performer’ does good work we may not see it and if a top performer falters we may fail to notice.

Selective thinking

Also known as confirmation bias, selective thinking is where we tend to notice and look for what confirms our beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts our beliefs.


SO while instinct is useful it can lead us to the wrong conclusions! We can’t get rid of cognitive biases, but knowing we have them helps.

Want to know more about how the latest neuroscience findings can help you escape the confines of cognitive biases to make better decisions?

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