decision cross-roads

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At every turn, life faces us with making a decision. Rarely do we resolve such situations by consciously weighing in the pros and cons. Instead, most of the time we trust our feelings — we go with our gut. According to a new study, decision-making based on feelings leads to more certain attitudes toward a given choice than focusing on logic. What’s more, gut feeling-based decisions are more personal, which can change a person’s behavior, for better or worse.

Researchers at the universities of Toronto Scarborough and Yale devised four experiments totaling more than 450 participants. In each experiment, the volunteers had to choose from a selection of similar items, such as different DVD players, mugs, apartments, or restaurants. We all know the struggle.

Some participants were asked to make a deliberate and informed decision based on logic while others had to make a gut-based, intuitive one. After the fact of the matter, they had to respond to a series of questions about their choice.

Those in the intuitive- gut-based decision group were more inclined to agree with statements that the decision reflected their true selves. They were also more certain of their decision and more likely to advocate for them.

For instance, when asked to publicize their choice between two restaurants by emailing the decision to their friends, people who picked a place intuitively were more likely to do share the choice with more people.

“This suggests that focusing on feelings doesn’t just change attitudes — it can change behavior, too,” said lead researcher Sam Maglio, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

But what was really surprising was how willing people were to quickly make a decision on the fly.

“So much folk wisdom says that we should eschew intuition because careful deliberation is thought to be the surest path to good choices, but we can’t escape our gut feelings,” said Maglio.

“In making decisions, people must decide not only what to choose, but how to choose it,” he added. “Our research suggests that individuals focusing on their feelings in decision-making do indeed come to see their chosen options as more consistent with what is essential, true and unwavering about themselves.”

Decision-making based on instinct is also surprisingly accurate. A previous study conducted by psychologists at Tel Aviv University found that participants were as much as 90% accurate when asked to quickly choose the correct average value for sequences of pairs of numbers. Intuitively, the human brain has the capacity to take in many pieces of information and decide on an overall value, the researchers explained at the time.

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However, Maglio says intuitive decision-making is a double-edged sword. On one hand, going with your gut can help people stick to important life choices, such as losing weight or studying for a new career, because they feel like they own the choice. On the other hand, gut-based decisions can lead to entrenched views — politics is a prime example.

“When digging our heels in is a good thing, like making sure we hop on the bike every day, there’s little downside and a lot of benefit. But dug-in heels give way to stubbornness and isolationism in the blink of an eye,” said Maglio. “When our political attitudes are made intuitively and make us certain that we’re right, we shut ourselves off from the possibility that we might be even a little bit wrong. For this reason, perhaps a bit of the openness facilitated by deliberation isn’t a bad thing after all.”

The findings were reported in the journal Emotion. 

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