Top 10 Reasons Not to Go With Your Gut

Many people swear by gut feelings and suggest you rely on them to make important decisions. Here are 10 ways gut feelings can lead you straight into harm’s way.

  1. Dangerous people know how to manipulate your gut feelings. For instance, Bernie Madoff disarmed potential investors with his charm. He impressed them with his career accomplishments and lulled them with glowing recommendations from other investors who were also unknowingly being conned.
  2. Dangerous people can be much better at reading you than you are at reading them. If you are lonely, for instance, they will listen and offer their companionship. If you suffer from low self-esteem, they will compliment you and make you feel good about yourself. They know how to get you to feel good about them, even when you shouldn’t.
  3. Crime victims never see it coming. I’ve yet to interview a crime victim who tells me, “I absolutely saw it coming ahead of time.” They may have a bad feeling, but they choose to ignore it. Or they had other sensations that told them everything would be okay. At best, their messages were mixed. At the worst, they completely misread the situations based on their feelings or lack of insight into people who posed a threat to them.
  4. Our guts cause us to let down our guard for the wrong reasons. Our guts, for instance, often cause us to trust people based on superficial details—details that generally have little to do with true normalcy. We trust people who look and dress like us, who share our opinions, and who fit in. Dangerous people know this, so they are often masters at appearing normal and likeable and at mirroring our values, likes and dislikes. They dress nicely and keep their houses presentable. Their behavior doesn’t cause internal bells and whistles to go off. They don’t seem threatening and our underlying belief is if we are nice to them they will be nice to us.
  5. Our guts lead us to distrust people for the wrong reasons. We generally distrust people based on superficial details, too. This is why we often assume that straggly-haired strangers—especially the ones who are socially inept, off-putting and shifty eyed—pose the greatest threat to us. In reality, some of the oddest-looking people pose little to no harm at all.
  6. Our guts are sometimes right, but they are often wrong. Think back over your life and about the many different decisions you’ve made—and especially about the ones you felt your way through. How many serious relationships did you get into because you felt a strong connection to someone, only to later realize the guy was a jerk? How many business transactions have you made because you had a good feeling about something, only to learn later you’d just lost your shirt? How often have you trusted someone because you liked him or her, only to have this person abuse that trust or otherwise hurt you? Trusting your gut is like making a decision by flipping a coin. That’s why you probably wouldn’t rely on your gut to tell you when to pull a parachute cord after jumping from an airplane, particularly if you’ve never skydived before. Are you really willing to risk your life on a measurement scale you cannot see, update, improve, or confirm?
  7. Gut feelings are not quantifiable or measurable. There is no known way to hone them or improve them.
  8. Our gut feelings are influenced by stress and fear. When you are under stress or fear, your emotions and sensations tend to be even less trustworthy than when you are relaxed. Yet in a high-risk situation you will likely be feeling plenty of stress and fear. Many people tell me that they have decided against doing something based on a bad feeling they had in their gut. What I’ve wondered was this: was that bad feeling a sign that they should not buy the car or take the job, or just a sign that they were nervous or scared? Were they really relying on this mysterious thing known as intuition, or were they simply reacting to the pressure of stress brought on by the moment?
  9. Our gut feelings often tell us to do the opposite of what’s safe. If you are ever to find yourself on fire, for instance, your natural inclination will be to run, but this would make the fire even worse. It’s for this reason that we teach children to stop, drop and roll. Without the constant repetition and practice, most people do not drop and roll when they are on fire. Because our gut instincts supposedly come from this nebulous gastrointestinal radar in the pit of our stomachs, we can get mixed messages. We cannot accurately interpret what this radar system is telling us, and we have no way to turn it on or off, repair it, or fine-tune it. We just hope it is always working when we need it. Isn’t that like putting your fate in the hands of the tooth fairy?
  10. Our guts encourage us to overlook signs of danger. Even when the rational signs of danger are evident, it’s our natural inclination to rationalize them away. For instance, you might see a small child screaming in the middle of an airport. You might ignore the child because your gut tells you, “His mother must be somewhere.”

“The views and opinions expressed by Dr Mary Ellen O’Toole are hers and not necessarily the views of the FBI”.