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This is part two of the Gut Instinct series. To read part one on gut instincts and people, click here.
Imagine you’re at a casino. Your palms are sweating as you hold a pair of dice in your hand. A crowd forms around the table and watches intently. This is it.
“I have a good feeling about this.”
You shake the dice loosely in your hand, hoping you’ll get lucky. Your fingers let go and the dice fly across the table. As the dice land on the board, you take one look and groan.
Regret begins to sink in.
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.
If Napoleon himself fell into that trap at Russia, what chance is there for the rest of us?
Back in part one, I talked about how instincts work, with a focus on evaluating the personalities and actions of others.
Today, we’ll focus on the role of gut feelings in making judgment calls in situations ranging 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 into our gut feelings when we make choices on a whim?
Let’s get started.
Being Pulled in Different Directions
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you couldn’t picture your life without it?
Maybe it was an admission to a competitive program, getting a position at a company you admired, or wanting a relationship to work out. A part of you knew that things weren’t likely to work out because it wasn’t be a good fit, or what you wanted was too far out of grasp.
Another side of you, though, remained optimistic. Maybe you pictured yourself in your ideal scenario and thought that things would finally go your way for once.
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. As I mentioned in my article on how our brains sabotage 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.
The Golfer’s Instinct
Performing when there are high stakes involved can be incredibly nerve-wracking. If you’ve seen someone sing off-tune in front of an audience, but normally sounds great during practice, you can’t help but feel for the person.
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.
Competitive athletes can choke when the pressure gets high. They overreact to the situation, causing them to listen to all the thoughts running through their heads. As a result, they stop paying attention to their instincts.
Take golf players for instance. A beginner player has to think carefully about feet 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.
Picking Stocks and Preparing for the Tsunami
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.
Meredith Whitney is a financial analyst known for her accurate predictions. Her most well-known prediction was her pessimistic forecast on the banks in mid-2008, before the problems of Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers became apparent (the latter filed for bankruptcy later that year).
Whitney said in Fortune magazine, “It feels like I’m at the epicenter of the biggest financial crisis in history.” What followed was financial crisis of 2008-2009, which economists consider the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
After her accurate prediction on Citigroup, a bank that suffered huge losses, Forbes magazine ranked her as the second-best stock picker in the financial industry. As the financial tsunami unrolled, The New York Post placed her on the list of 50 most powerful women in New York City, while a CNBC viewer survey named her the “Power Player of the Year.”
In 2010, she appeared in an interview on the program 60 Minutes, where she once again made a prediction: over 50 cities in the United States would default on their municipal bonds, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. She stated that this was “something to worry about within the next 12 months.”
In 2011, only $760 million of municipal bonds defaulted, a far cry from the hundreds of billions of dollars predicted. Compared to the 6.8% return of taxable bonds, municipal bonds had a more favorable 8.1% return. Afterward, Whitney described her forecast as a “guesstimate.”
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.
Train Your Gut
“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 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 makes predictions difficult at times. 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.