When You Go with Your Gut, You Feel Like You

Confident woman with arms raised in the air.
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Here's a real gut check: Making choices based on intuition may make you feel more certain about the decision.

New research suggests that this certainty is linked to the idea that gut decisions are the work of one's "true self," the inner essence of a person. So, the more a person relies on gut feeling to make a choice, the more they feel that the choice reflects their true self, said study researcher Sam Maglio, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

And because they feel like the choice reflects something important about them, people become more confident in that decision after the fact, Maglio and his co-author, Taly Reich, of the Yale School of Management, reported today (Sept. 10) in a study published in the journal Emotion.

"The way that we make our choices really matters for how we live with our choices," Maglio told Live Science. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad for You]

Seeking the "true self"

Still, it's not even clear, scientifically speaking, whether a "true self" exists. The important thing, Maglio said, is that people believe they've got one — a firm, unshakable identity. They may not always act the way they believe their true self should, but people tend to believe it exists.

To investigate how this "true self" interacts with decision-making, Maglio and his team ran four separate experiments in which they asked people to make choices about consumer goods. In the first experiment, 90 Toronto residents were asked to choose between two DVD players. Some participants were told to go with their gut feelings, others to deliberate and others just to make the choice without other instruction. Afterward, the participants were asked how much their decisions reflected their "true selves."

People instructed to go with their guts felt that their choices were more reflective of their true selves than did people ordered to deliberate, the researchers found. (The people given no instruction matched the deliberative group in answering the "true self" question, suggesting that they made their choice deliberatively, too.)

In another experiment, the researchers recruited 88 people on Facebook to choose between travel mugs. These were presented either in black-and-white pictures or in color and with descriptions focusing more on the material aspects of the mug (what it was made of, for example) or the experiential aspects (how easy it would be to clean). People who saw colorful mugs or mugs described experientially were more likely to say their choices reflected their true selves. This may indicate that the type of decision to be made can influence whether people go with their guts or think things through deliberatively, the researchers said. [Is Your 'Self' Just an Illusion?]

Certainty and stuff

In a third study, 215 participants recruited online through the gig website Mechanical Turk made choices among different Airbnb-style apartments, sometimes after being told that where people choose to live reflects who they really are. When people were given that cue, they became more certain in their decision regardless of whether they'd been instructed to choose deliberatively or intuitively.

"What this tells us is that going with your gut is a good way to see your true self in decisions, but there is more than one way to [go about] seeing your true self," Maglio said. "People might just believe that certain types of choices for particular types of products, no matter how you pick, say something about who you really are."

Finally, the researchers tested the influence of the "true self" in a more realistic situation. They asked participants — in this case, 60 undergraduate students — to pick a restaurant to dine at, and then asked the participants' willingness to share their decisions on social media and to give real email addresses of friends and family. This was, ostensibly, to share a coupon for the eatery. Once again, the participants were told to pick either intuitively or deliberatively.

The researchers expected that those who chose based on a gut feeling would feel more certain in their choices, and thus offer up more email addresses. And that's what happened. People who went with their intuition gave the researchers more email addresses in total. And more individuals in the intuition group offered at least one email address compared to those in the deliberative group, at 57 percent versus 30 percent.

"When the rubber hits the road in decision strategy, going with your gut feeling is more compelling in getting people to broadcast their choices to other people," Maglio said.

For marketers, tapping into people's sense of their "true selves" can be a huge boon, Maglio said. Think of a "Mac guy," who would never consider buying a Dell laptop. He's an easy repeat customer, and likely because he identifies with his Apple purchase. That can be fine for consumers, too, if it saves them mental energy, Maglio said. In some cases, it might even be beneficial. If you just feel like you fit in at the YMCA, for example, you're more likely to keep exercising there than if you talk yourself into going to SoulCycle against your gut instincts.

"But when diversity of experience is to be prioritized, [and you're] relitigating some things that might not be so set in stone, then deliberation has a place," Maglio said. When facing a wonky decision, like which mutual fund to invest in, it might be better to choose deliberatively rather than intuitively, for example.

A strength of the study, Maglio said, was that the experiments drew from a broad range of participants, not just undergraduate students or online gig workers. The researchers are now working on a follow-up study on what happens when a gut decision goes wrong and the product doesn't work out.

"What we would predict, and what we're starting to find," Maglio said, "is that people who go with their gut are more passionate protectors of their choice."

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.