A “gut feeling” is an automatic, cognitive, short-cut that provides a crude, organic, meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept.

Life experiences are three-fold. First, they involve sensations. Real and/or imagined sensory stimulation from the environment such as light, sound, fragrance, texture, etc. Second, experiences require cognitions and perceptions. These are your thoughts about the sensory stimuli. Your eyes and brain may sense a light, and then your mind interprets, “Oh, the car in front of me just put on the brakes.” Third, experiences are bathed in varying levels of emotion. So, the car in front of you suddenly hits the brakes and you feel a quick tinge of fear that you may rear end the other car. Emotions are the body’s security system. They evolved as a mechanism to aid us in survival. Emotions warn us of danger and reward us for behaviors that have historically resulted in increased odds for survival of the species.

In the course of a lifetime, you have trillions of experiences covering innumerable concepts. Some of these experiences are available to the conscious mind, but most are not. It would be impossible to function if you had to process your lifetime of experiences every time you had to answer a question or make a decision. So, the mind provides a short cut called the “gut feeling.”

If I ask, “Do you like raisins?” the answer will lie in an overview of every life experience you have ever had with the concept called, “raisin.”

…raisins are dehydrated grapes
…the dancing California Raisins
…raisin bran cereal
…raisins look like flies
…raisins are high in antioxidants
…as a kid, I threw up after eating a box of raisins
…raisins are sweet
…raisins have a funny texture
…I got raisins in my lunchbox when I was in grade school
…raisins smell bad
…and on and on and on and on

But, since filtering through these millions of experiences would be impossible and impractical, your mind makes a snap shot using the most dominant, overshadowing emotion related to the concept called, “raisin.” This provides your gut feeling and your answer… “No, raisins are gross.”

The gut feeling is necessary to navigating the complex terrain of human life. Without it, we would be paralyzed. However, it is also the fundamental cognitive error that interferes with human advancement. Our nature, like all animals, is to accept gut feelings as “truth.” If I approach a squirrel with the intention of giving it a walnut, the squirrel’s gut feeling may be that I am a threat, so the squirrel runs away. The truth is that I intended to help the squirrel by giving it food. Gut feelings are not truth. Truth is based in fact and posses objective reality.

So, if I am interested in finding "truth," then I must understand that my gut feeling is an extremely fallible resource completely dependent on my very limited and unique fund of life experiences. To find “truth,“ I must test my gut feeling against objective litmus’ like logic, mathematics, physical properties, etc. The gut feeling is a necessary place to start, but it can be a foolish place to end.

The ability to override “gut feelings” is the characteristic that enables the human to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to gut feelings. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, the advent of logic, mathematics, and the scientific method, has provided a means for humans to break the bonds of our animal nature and rise above superstition and intuition. It is a tragedy that so few take advantage of this magnificent opportunity.

Views: 363


You need to be a member of Atheist Nexus to add comments!

Join Atheist Nexus

Comment by jay H on April 19, 2014 at 7:04am

In the right context, gut feelings are useful. They're based on subconscious pattern matching with experience tweaking weights of the inputs. When a skilled machinist or woodworker practices their craft, of course they are using logic, but they are also going by the feel of their media.

Pattern matching (as working in the mammal brain at least) is very fast, in the real world it works (for both animals and humans) where logic cannot. It can also sometimes perform better than logic when there are conflicting inputs or insufficient information to come to a logical conclusion.

Some years ago researchers developed a neural net application that was trained to evaluate loan applications. After sufficient training it was quite accurate in prediction defaults. It couldn't be legally used, however, because it did not generate a quantifiable reason to reject a loan, neural systems don't work that way.

In the detective example, early in the investigation there is simply not enough logical evidence, and the good investigator needs to utilize gut feelings. But in the end, when the information is in, logic provides the more reliable answer.

Comment by Luara on April 18, 2014 at 2:18pm

I have had a lot of trouble from not paying attention to my intuitions.  I grew up in a family where my perceptions were driven underground in the name of "reason" - but really because they were threatening. 

So I am very wary of attitudes against gut feelings.  People can be very good at reading things like the tiny eye movements of another person, or the subtleties of what someone says and their tone of voice - and know things about the person without even knowing how they know it - which is what intuition is. 

Comment by Michael Penn on April 18, 2014 at 7:54am

I know people that actually believe that if you thinkyour mate is cheating, it means they probably are! If they are accusing you, it's most likely because they are doing the same things! Huh? WTF?

Yes, those wonderful gut feelings that we call intuition. A good thing if your mind is a good dectective. Not so good if it is not.

"Hello, policeman. My neighbor is a rapist. Yes, my stomach just told me. He's home and you can come and pick him up right now. Thank you."

Comment by jay H on April 18, 2014 at 7:04am

Gut feelings are over rated by the religious and new age crowd, and under rated some people obsessed with the concept that humans should (or even can) be purely rational.

The truth is what we call 'gut feelings' is the mix of our very complex suite of instincts and the highly developed animal brain which has served us fairly well along evolutionary time scales.

Being a late addition, the developed cerebral cortex is only partially integrated with our 'animal brain', giving us periodic conflicts. But we could not survive without our animal brain, the logical mind is to slow. The animal brain, with its highly tuned adaptive neural net structure is able to respond quickly to incomplete and even contradictory inputs ... essential for survival not only in the jungle but in the real world in which we are immersed.

I know how to calculate the trajectory of an object traveling in space, but if I don't have the initial conditions exactly right my calculations go way off. By contrast my dog knows nothing about gravitational constants and  initial velocity and she doesn't care. Toss a treat in the air and she gets her mouth under it in a time scale that I couldn't begin to analyze logically.

When we look at ethical issues like the variety of trolley car problems, trying to solve them purely logically leads to logical circles and contradictory conclusions. But somehow (years of evolution building our social instincts, to be precise) enables us to come to some form of resolution. We can decide that one course is moral, while another may not be, even when logic can't bring us there.

Gut feelings also can be better at problems that don't have a logical answer, or problems where there is bad or missing data (like much of the real world). Neural nets deal much better with these problems.

Comment by Edward Teach on April 10, 2014 at 11:04am

Thank you Michael! I developed more critical thinking skills through interacting with folks on Atheist Nexus than I ever did from formal education ;-)

Comment by Michael Penn on April 10, 2014 at 10:29am

Welcome back, Edward.

I tend to agree with Loren.

Comment by Edward Teach on April 10, 2014 at 9:32am

Good point, Loren. The message I am getting from teaching Gen Psy this semester is that nearly every perception we have is crude and inaccurate. Never "feels" like it though ;-)

Comment by Loren Miller on April 10, 2014 at 9:00am

Gut feelings are very much like intuition.  Both are data; the question is: how accurate and/or reliable are the data?  Knowing oneself, including attendant irrationalities, phobias, quirks, and other personal characteristics can allow an individual to take such subjective information and process it for its value or lack thereof.

Bottom line: Tenet Nosce - Know Yourself.

© 2019   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: The Nexus Group.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service