Why do so few people trust their thinking, instead following “their gut”?

Many philosophers, poets and thinkers have remarked that people trust what they feel rather than what they think. The great Afghan poet Rumi warned his fellow courtiers about this and Machiavelli simply that most people judge by appearances, which is due to mental weakness.

Assuming that it’s true that the vast majority of people follow their instincts rather than their mental faculties on important choices such as the person they marry, the job they seek, the education they pursue, the person they believe and vote for, the place they choose to live, etc., the question arises as to what this instinct roughly entails and why people don’t put more faith in their reasoning.

A first thought is that instinct and ‘gut feeling’ is nothing less than a rule of thumb one learned at an earlier date. Just like we don’t consciously think much about how to walk once we’ve learned the trick but simply walk on instinct, we acquire a myriad of automated responses on a whole raft of issues, ranging from automated responses on preparing food to social situations. From this perspective, gut reactions will arise as fairly accurate heuristics saving us time. Where gut instinct fails is in the situation where appearances are either unintentionally or intentionally deceiving.

 This train of thought leads to three candidate explanations for the mystery:

 1) Laziness: some people find it mentally too costly to re-compute a new situation, even when the choice made in those situations is of profound consequence to their future lives. This is roughly what Machiavelli thought and would fit for those who sincerely dislike thinking.

 2) Best-they-can-do: some people have found themselves so poor at computing things that they have found it is better to rely on a couple of instincts handed down to them by others (parents, teachers, etc.) rather than do any computing themselves on any major issue.

3) Insecurity: even when thinking costs little energy and someone is quite good at it, a very insecure person can still rationally choose not to think about a new situation other than in ‘gut’ terms simply to avoid the agony of discovering their gut can be wrong and to have to deal with the implications of that insecurity. They pretend to themselves that gut instincts are always right.

This is not a stand-alone explanation though because it needs an ability of an initial self (Self 0) to realise that its future self (Self 1) will believe the lie Self 0 chooses to adopt, i.e. at some level we need to know something that we won’t again know in the future. Also this explanation needs a future self that would ignore facts that violate gut instinct. Both preconditions fit in with the psychological theories about cognitive dissonance though: having adopted a certain ‘truth’ we humans are prone to ignore any evidence to the contrary and will indeed reinvent a history as to how we got by that truth. The smarter we are the more elaborate our ex-post rationalisation for our previous choices become. To nail this theory down one would have to think of an experiment to satisfactorily prove that people realise at one point that they can fool themselves in the future and indeed choose to do so.

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