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Gut Feeling Might Help You Make Better Decisions

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Gut Feeling Might Help You Make Better Decisions

Have you ever been struck by a feeling of uncertainty or caution when going about your day? You could be walking down the street, totally normal, when you subconsciously notice someone and you think:

“Hey, keep away from that guy” or “Don’t stay here too long”

These feelings can strike at times when everything seems normal. We call these experiences “gut feelings” or “gut instinct” as if it is something bodily and disconnected from the mind.

However this name is not inaccurate. There is a close connection between the gut and the brain composed of a extremely complex network [1] of chemicals and neurons which inform your brain about issues in your body, not just the digestive system as you may expect. Not only does it inform your brain about hunger and thirst, but also stress and unease. Here lies the gut instinct.

But you’re a reasonable person, how can something reactionary, some trigger deep down in your brain stand to intelligent analysis?

Surely these feelings are residual evolutionary stuff, as useful for us today as the tail bone. Well, this is untrue.

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Some studies [2] have shown that it is often a good idea to trust your gut. In 2011 a group of researchers designed a card game wherein there was no real strategic way to play the game, and instead players had to rely on gut instinct.

When people started to win, most credited their victory on trusting their gut instinct. The sweat responses and heart rate of the players was measured to indicate when reactions occurred. Though some gut instincts lead players into playing badly, the general success rate implies that trusting gut instincts and reactions can be a good idea, however it is not a foolproof system (where would the fun in that be?).

When to trust your gut feeling

Though its not always accurate, sometimes its the best indicator you have when picking up trouble. Especially with these examples

Your health: what not to eat

Your enteric nervous system (the above mentioned complex network of chemical reactions and neurons connecting your gut to your brain) is extremely effective at picking up warning signs [3] from your body.

So if you ever suddenly think you shouldn’t have eaten that thing, or a part of your body doesn’t feel right, you should pay attention.

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Paying close attention to feelings in your body, especially if it is as severe as triggering a gut reaction has its benefits.

Some people train and exercise according to attention paid to the body and how it feels, this is called intuitive training, or autoregulatory [4] training.

Dangers and threats: Who not to get close with

Imagine you’re walking home at night, like you have done a million times before and you see a guy on the street corner. He seems totally ordinary, but something just isn’t right. As you get near you get a gut reaction to avoid him.

There are many stories [5]where people have had these reactions and later realized that they were saved from some horrible fate. We have evolved to have immediate responses to dangers that are beyond conscious thought.

Though it is always worth analysing [6] a situation if possible. These gut feelings of danger are always worth consideration.

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It is important to consider I think, we are all descendants of those who survived. Those who didn’t have senses tuned to potential dangers didn’t last.

Though of course perhaps 9 times out of ten you were warned of a non existent danger. Its better to be safe than sorry.

When not to trust your gut feeling: threats from objects

Life in the 21st century is stressful. If you live in a modern city, from the moment you leave your front door, you are bombarded by smells, sounds sights, upon sights than easily put your senses to the test. Though we have evolved enough to be able to function with when we live in places containing more sensory information than anyone in history evolved to deal with. Our ability to spot dangers has not evolved so much.

We, as human beings developed and evolved as in the wild, we were part of the food chain. Being killed by a wild animal was a real and every-day threat, instead of an unusual occurrence. As such we evolved to be able to spot animals extremely quickly and identify them as potential dangers.

You might have experienced this yourself. However our bodies have not adapted to the reality that a car, is far more of a threat than an animal. It has not totally got the message that we are no longer hunter gatherers.

In a study [7] people were shown photographs of animals and inanimate objects. Each photograph had a nearly identical duplicate immediately after, safe for one slight change. Test subjects were able to identify changes in animal scenes 100% of the time, and objects around 70% of the time.

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Because of this, you might get a gut reaction alerting you to a danger that simply isn’t there.

Also, if you have a panic disorder, or problems with your amygdala [8] then you might get gut reactions alerting you to danger, the flight or fight response at times when there is no danger at all. It might even occur randomly.
This I know from experience.

But as demonstrated above, we get these reactions for a reason. Though some times the course of action they lead us towards may be the wrong one, maybe the danger we are alerted to isn’t a danger at all.

There are times when, listening to your gut is the best thing you can do.

Reference

More by this author

Arthur Peirce

Lifestyle Writer

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

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How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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