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Gut Feelings

April 2008 - Research from Leeds University Business School published in the British Journal of Psychology throws new light on "gut feelings" arguing that they are real psychological phenomena that should be taken seriously.

Researchers explain that intuition represents one of the ways our brains store, process and retrieve information. The value of instinctive hunches has frequently been disregarded but there are numerous recorded examples where relying on intuition prevented catastrophes or resulted in remarkable recoveries. The researchers analyzed a wide range of previous studies and concluded that intuition - a feeling that something is right or wrong - is the brain drawing on past experiences and current external cues to make a decision; a process so rapid that the reaction is subconscious.

Lead researcher Professor Gerard Hodgkinson said:

"People usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure or in a situation of information overload or acute danger, where conscious analysis of the situation may be difficult or impossible."

One example is a Formula One driver who braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend; avoiding hitting an unseen pile-up ahead and thereby saving his life.

Gerard Hodgkinson explained:

"The driver couldn't explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event. In hindsight he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn't looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn't consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time."

Gerard Hodgkinson continued:

"Humans clearly need both conscious and non-conscious thought processes, but it's likely that neither is intrinsically 'better' than the other."

The study highlights the impact on business, where many managers claim to use intuition over deliberate analysis when a swift decision is required.

Gerard Hodgkinson concluded:

"We'd like to identify when business people choose to switch from one mode to the other and why - and also analyse when their decision is the correct one. By understanding this phenomenon, we could then help organizations to harness and hone intuitive skills in their executives and managers."

Gut Instinct Decisions

September 2007 - Research by Michigan State University environmental science and policy researcher Joseph Arvai and graduate student Robyn Wilson, of Ohio State University, has found that people usually follow emotional gut instinct rather than rational responses when making decisions about complex issues such as terrorism, troop surges or crime, even though the brain can simultaneously process both kinds of information.

Earlier this year, Joseph Arvai and four other scientists discussed decision-making and risk evaluation at a symposium entitled Numbers and Nerves: Affect and Meaning in Risk Information at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Joseph Arvai said:

"People tend to have a hard time evaluating numbers, even when the numbers are clear and right in front of them. In contrast, the emotional responses that are conjured up by problems like terrorism and crime are so strong that most people don't factor in the empirical evidence when making decisions."

The researchers asked participants to prioritize which of two common scenarios in state parks merited more attention from risk managers. One involved crime such as vandalism and purse snatching and the other damage to property from white-tailed deer such as collisions with vehicles.

Joseph Arvai explained:

"The neat thing with crime and deer overpopulation is that both risks could be measured on the same scale, which made our jobs as researchers easier. But because crime incites such a negative emotional response from most people, it consistently received more attention, even when the numbers showed that the risks from deer were much worse. We had to ratchet up the deer damage until it was ridiculously high before people noticed that it was a higher risk than crime.

"The bigger problem we've uncovered is that this response isn't limited to crime and deer. We see it happening in other areas: terrorism, the war in Iraq and infectious diseases."

The study considered whether rational responses could gain precedence over emotional gut instinct.

Joseph Arvai commented:

"People can be given tools that help them to 'listen' more to the empirical side of their brains. But in our experiments, the effects of these tools tend to be relatively short term. We've been able to make people aware that they're letting their emotions guide them, and we've developed decision aids that help them strike a better balance between their emotions and the numbers. But people tend to revert to decisions guided by emotions once the experiment is over, and they leave the room."

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