Don’t Trust Your Gut Unless It’s Calibrated


Imagine you are walking down a dimly lit street at night in a foreign city. Your shoulders tense up, unease courses through your body, and you become hyper-aware. Just about any sound grabs your attention. You notice strangers, especially if they come too close. You are on high alert: not because of some deliberate decision, but because of something deep within.

We all have gut feelings. Sometimes, it’s to put us on high alert when we are in novel places. Other times, we judge someone we just met as untrustworthy. Our intuition often comes from signals we don’t consciously pick up. In studying gut instincts in the lab, researchers have utilized various gambling tasks where participants choose cards that either punish or reward participants more or less frequently. Researchers tip the deck imperceptibly against or for participants, making the ‘punishment‘ card occur slightly more frequently than it would at random. If participants are allowed to go through the deck around 50 times, they start to pick up on the pattern. They pick the cards that maximize their rewards. But, crucially, they can’t explain why they have changed their strategy. In other words, our intuition can pick up patterns that we don’t yet consciously recognize.

It’s why it is popular to proclaim, ‘trust your gut!’ But there is an important caveat: your intuition depends on your perception, as with all subconscious predictions. And if your perception isn’t well calibrated, you’re out of luck.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one of the more misunderstood mental health disorders. Most people think of obsessive cleaning, the need for order, washing your hands over and over again, or other ritualistic behaviors. We think that is the main culprit. But for most, it’s not. Those behaviors are the coping mechanism. The real problem occurs much earlier, in the thought and feeling that precedes the behavior.

I still remember my first experience with OCD. I was 5 or 6. I got in the bed on the opposite side that I normally did. And, for whatever reason, my brain convinced me I was going to die if I fell asleep. I didn’t know why. But it felt so real, like if I drifted off to sleep, I would be gone. From there, my OCD gradually extended beyond sleep to other intrusive thoughts and feelings.

One way I’ve come to think about OCD is that it is a hyperactive threat alarm. Our brain sees threats everywhere. We get a little dirt on our hands and it sends us down a doom loop where we are convinced we’re going to die of some rare parasite. Or we see a knife on the counter and our brain starts imagining that we’ll pick it up and harm ourselves or others. Our feelings and thoughts spiral out of control, pushing us towards coping by completing some sort of ritual (either physical or psychological) over and over again. In the distorted thinking and feeling world of OCD, the ritual behavior soothes the distress. That is, until it comes back with a vengeance.

With OCD, treatment is about learning not to trust your gut. It’s accepting that the feelings and thoughts that bubble to the surface aren’t to be trusted. Your thoughts aren’t you. You have to turn the alarm down, to convince yourself that holding a knife in your hand doesn’t mean that danger is near. Your brain has to recalibrate its predictions.

(For more on OCD, here is a comprehensive, accessible, and authoritative website.)

While those who suffer from OCD have extreme, often debilitating mis-calibrated threat predictions, the principle applies to the rest of us. It’s why researchers found that the accuracy and effectiveness of intuitive decision-making were related to participants’ level of expertise. If they were experts in that area, intuition did well. If not, they were out of luck. When we have expertise and are not in a doom-loop or overcome with anxiety (and its underlying neurochemistry) then intuition is often very powerful. But otherwise, it can lead us astray.

We can see this in a sporting context too. When we are out of shape and go for a run our brain jumps straight to threat mode. At the first sign of legitimate fatigue, our brain screams at us to slow down, stop, or give up. It thinks that it’s in danger because it hasn’t felt this out of breath since high school PE class!! But, that alarm is often wrong. You probably aren’t going to die. You probably aren’t in danger of collapsing. Your feeling-brain system is just rusty. If you keep up your exercise habit, that alarm gets quieter and quieter.

The main point is this: before trusting your gut, you want to make sure it’s well-calibrated.

To stick with the simple example of sports, if you are an experienced runner, that thought in your brain that an injury is near is worth listening to. If you are a novice, or if you are caught up in anxiety about getting injured or being hurt, maybe you are mistaking effort for pain. This metaphor applies broadly.


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