The Science: Your Gut Reactions

gut and brainYour gut reactions are truer than you think. The latest research demonstrates that contrary to popular opinion, our emotions do not interfere with our decisions. Our emotions are essential to making good decisions.

While they can often mislead us, this is most often because we haven't been trained in useful models for gut decision-making. Gutsy decisions are the best decisions when arising from trained strategic reflexes.

The oldest form of emotional reaction is the flight or fight reflex, a term coined in 1920s by the American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon. This reflex, found in all animals, involves the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal gland. Work during World War II by Hans Selye identified a longer lasting response, the “General Adaptation Syndrome,” with which operates in response to longer-term exposure to challenges to cause of stress.

Our understanding of the connections between emotions and decisions has advanced considerably in recent years.

The traditional view, at least among cognitive psychologists, was higher-level decision processes, were based on conscious, rational reasoning. Now we understand that all such calculations depend heavily upon how a person emotionally reacts to situations.

The first challenge to the idea of conscious choice was the research1 that found that our perceptions of situations form and affect our decisions before we are consciously aware of them.

Through pairing of stimuli and response, we feel emotions that can guide our decisions. These emotions can guide our decisions before we are consciously aware of them. This has come to be called "somatic marker hypothesis." Somatic means "body" as opposed to "mind."

Our enteric (intestinal) nervous system is wired directly into the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that orchestrates our thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. When we get a feeling in our "gut," it is because this part of our brain knows something that we cannot put into words.

Research into people with damaged to their prefrontal lobes2found that these patients were described as “decides against his best interest,” “doesn't learn from his mistakes,” “is impulsive,” “decisions lead to negative consequences,” and so on.

What is the the name that psychologist give these processes in the prefrontal cortex? Our executive functions.

When faced with unfamiliar and challenging situations, these automatic functions heavily affect our decision-making processes. We cannot consciously control these effects to force ourselves to make "rational" decisions.

In contrast, if faced with familiar situations, we just as automatically respond in the ways that we have been trained to respond. In many ways, the choice of response is unconscious. We automatically respond to situations we recognize, focusing on the specific details of that response rather than choosing it.

As an article in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science explains:

Recent years have seen a dramatic surge in research seeking to understand the neural processes underlying how we make decisions and choices. These investigations have been initiated by both behavioral scientists, who have begun to see the usefulness of constraining theoretical models with information gleaned from studying the brain, and neuroscientists, who have become interested in using existing models of decision-making to examine neural processing.

However, research also shows that, without retraining them, our gut feeling can easily mislead us.

For example, research3 shows that when making judgments, we tend to rely on information that is ready available rather than information that is critical. More recent research4 identified the two other common sources of gut errors as lack of experience with a specific situation and ignoring anomalies because they didn't fit the model of a situation.

What we have found in looking at this research is that best way to assure better competitive decision is to train people in a "model" for better understanding competitive and challenging situations so that when they arise, people know how to react. The best such system ever developed is Sun Tzu's methods of Sun Tzu's Warrior's Rules.

To quote a recent article by Bruce G Charlton MD, the editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, reviewing Damasio's latest work:

I suggest that the somatic marker mechanism evolved specifically to perform the job of ‘strategic social intelligence’. Strategic can be contrasted with ‘Tactical’ social intelligence, which is found in many animals, and does not require large cognitive capabilities. Strategic social intelligence is the ability to perform internal cognitive modeling of social relationships, in order to understand, predict and manipulate the behaviour of others - and is found only in animals with a large pre-frontal cerebral cortex (humans and other apes and primates, dolphins, elephants and some other social mammals).

Research5 has also shown that anyone can become an expert in anything, but that you cannot develop gut level expertise simply from reading and studying. You must practice making decisions with them.

1 Bechara, Damasio, Tranel & Damasio (1997) Science 275:, 1293–1295

2 Dimitrov, Phipps, Zahn & Grafman, (1999) Neurocase 5:, 345–354
3 Kahneman, Slovic, Tversky (1992), Judgment under uncertainty: Hueristic and biases. Cambridge University.
4 Klein (1993), Source of error in naturalistic decision-making tasks, Proceeding of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society 37th Annual Meeting
5 Ericsson and Charness (1994), Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist.

Competitive Arenas: