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“I knew there was something wrong about him.”
How many times we heard someone say this, or thought this in our heads? Whenever we feel conflicted about someone we meet, we hear the same thing over and over: “trust your gut.”
We might spend days, months, or even years trying to figure something out. Is there a good chance of succeeding in this new job? Should I trust her? The wheels in our head spin as we think of all the variables and how they’ll play out.
And still, we keep hearing that we should just listen to our instincts. Complicated questions, simple answer. What should we do, and where did this whole idea of the gut instinct come from, anyway?
Intuition isn’t some magical, mysterious quality that we carry with us. It actually comes from the knowledge and past experiences that we all carry. Even if we’re unable to explain why we feel the way we do, there’s a logical explanation behind our gut feelings.
Whenever you encounter anything new, the unconscious side of your brain is constantly making assessments. It takes in certain cues, such as a smile or parts of a story, and then matches it with something similar in our database of memories to come up with a conclusion. Meanwhile, our conscious side remains unaware of this rapid process taking place.
Our instincts help us navigate our world more easily by creating mental shortcuts that help us act quickly. Instead of using energy to fully assess a situation, our brains look for fast answers.
But how trustworthy are our gut feelings?
Leadership’s All in the Face
It’s been said that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but studies reveal that we can learn quite a bit just by looking at someone’s face. Nicholas Rule, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, did a series of studies on facial perception.
In 2011, Rule showed a group of people the college yearbook photos of top U.S. lawyers. These strangers successfully predicted which lawyers would eventually lead the most profitable law firms in the country. He conducted a similar study using 20 female CEOs and found a direct correlation between ratings and corporate profits.
Exactly why, though, is harder to explain. Maybe it’s because we judge a person initially by their physical appearance, so they develop certain personality traits to fit their appearance. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, they end up finding positions that match their character.
Or is it the other way around? The person’s personality changes their appearance as they repeat certain facial expressions. From laugh lines to glowering looks, we use these physical expressions to gauge what the person is like.
There’s a lot to be said about reading someone’s face. When we watch someone speak or react to something, we look at their face for non-verbal expressions. What might not be so obvious is that we’re subconsciously reading people’s microexpressions to see how they really feel.
A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression. Unlike regular expressions, microexpressions often only last for a fraction of a second and are difficult to fake. For instance, someone could avert eye contact briefly if they’re hiding something or feel uncertain.
When someone’s words don’t match with the microexpressions on their face, we sense that something is ‘off’ about the person. What they say doesn’t match what they think. This uneasy feeling we experience can be hard to articulate, so we attribute it to our gut feeling.
“But He Seemed So Nice!”
Sometimes we think we have someone completely figured out. Until they prove us wrong.
Take John Wayne Gacy, for instance. He lived in the quiet suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s with his wife and two stepdaughters. People who knew Gacy respected him and considered him a role model because of his contributions to the community and his kind, likeable character.
When he wasn’t working on his growing construction business, Gacy was active in the Democratic Party and hosted street parties for neighbors. He would volunteer for organizations and dress up as a clown to entertain children. Everyone knew what Gacy was about – or so they thought.
What they didn’t know was his past. Several years earlier, he had started off in a similar way in another suburb. He married his coworker Marlynn Myers, whose father invited him to work in the family restaurant business. Things started out great. Gacy worked extremely hard, became involved in volunteering and eventually he and his wife had a son and a daughter.
But then the rumors began to circulate that Gacy was interested in the young men that worked at the restaurant. His loved ones, who knew him so well, dismissed these rumors as ridiculous. But in 1968, he was charged with numerous counts of rape and violence towards teenaged boys. After serving only 18 months in prison, he set out to start his life again with a clean slate.
Here again in his new life, Gacy soon grew impatient. He employed a number of young men to work in his business because he could pay them low wages, as was his reasoning. Over a period of six years, a number of teenaged boys and young men in the area mysteriously disappeared.
The rumors about him grew once more, and a lead resulted in police performing a background check on him, where they discovered his past. They eventually linked him to the sexual assault and murder of over 30 teenaged boys and young men. Friends and neighbors who had known him for several years were left shocked as he was tried and sentenced to death row.
When Gut Instincts Lead to Bloodshed
The other side of the coin is acting based on a misjudgment of someone’s intentions. By time you realize you’re wrong, it’s too late.
A police officer’s role requires the person to make snap decisions based on the information at hand. Sometimes these decisions can mean the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases where people have been shot because they were mistakenly believed to be dangerous.
One of the most well-known cases is that of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean man in his 20s. Standing in front of his apartment house, he reached into his jacket for his wallet to show identification. Officers mistook the object for a gun and fired a total of 41 times. Public outrage ensued as issues of racial profiling and police brutality were raised.
The case led to a review of how people make decisions based on race in a number of research experiments. Both undergraduate volunteers and police officers were asked to play a computer simulation to choose whether or not to shoot a target, who might have been black or white, on whether they were armed or not. Results showed that when it came to unarmed black targets, participants were slower and less accurate in their decision making.
These incidents show that our snap decisions often result from prejudices and past experiences. If we let our instinctive feelings overrule our thought process, we could end up making the wrong decisions.
In ordinary situations though, it usually pays to be wary of your surroundings. Whether you’re male or female, it can be unnerving to walk down a dark, lonely street by yourself at night. If you get bad vibes from someone nearby, you’re safer off getting further away from that person than risking anything happening.
An even better idea is to use a buddy system. Many colleges have set up an on-demand buddy system so that people can eliminate risks by having someone to walk with at night. Sometimes the best way to use your gut instinct is to eliminate the need for it.
Our Instincts Are Flexible
Our instincts exist for a reason. They were built to help us assess people quickly to determine whether or not we can trust them, which increase our chances of survival. These gut feelings are built upon and modified by our past experiences and things that we’ve learned.
The bad news is that prejudices and memorable experiences can cloud our judgment and instinct. We might mistakenly think we know what a stranger is like by comparing them with someone else. Or, we impose personality traits on someone to suit how we want them to be.
Every one of us carries biases that alter how our gut feelings react. We need to assess how our experiences change our perceptions of people so that we can make better judgments in the future. By recognizing that our gut feelings get thrown off on occasion, we can balance our emotions with rational thought.
This is part one of the Gut Instinct series. Click here to read part two on how our gut instincts help us navigate situations in life.