The Art and Science of Making Choices—or why you should always listen to your gut

           Not long ago, I was working with a client who was struggling to decide where to go to graduate school. After extensive research, she had narrowed her list and applied to five different programs, and she got into all of them. Four of the five had offered her generous financial aid packages. She spent many more hours visiting the campuses, interviewing professors and current students, and scouring the internet to learn what alumni of each program were doing. Using all of this information, she narrowed the field to two universities. Both of them would offer her a first-rate education and entré to many real-world opportunities. Now she agonized. “What if I make a terrible choice?” she asked. “What if I end up saying no to University A and University B is a disaster?”

            What does your gut say? I asked her. “My gut says University A, but University B is in Washington, D.C., so I’d have more options for policy internships there.” I persisted, pointing out that her gut was telling her to go with University A, and I could tell that she wanted to do that, but she was paralyzed by the possibility of making the wrong choice. “How can you say to trust my gut?” she said. “This is graduate school. My decision should be all about thinking it through intellectually, for heaven’s sake.” I reminded her that she was thinking herself in circles and asked her again to listen to her “gut.”

            Famed life coach Martha Beck says “to find our way in any complex world, we need an awareness beyond language.” That awareness is what we commonly call a gut feeling. Beck describes it as a shift of consciousness “out of the verbal part of the brain and into the more creative, intuitive, and sensory brain regions.”

            It turns out that there is solid science behind the idea that the “gut feeling” should be an essential component of decision-making. Neuroscientists have found that one of the key decision-making centers in our brains is the basal ganglla which is located in the base of the brain. The basal ganglia is not connected to the cerebral cortex or any of the other areas of the brain where verbal processing takes place. In other words, the basal ganglia doesn’t communicate in words. It communicates in emotions and connections to our intestines. “Gut feeling” is an apt description of what happens when we are grappling with a hard decision.

            I told my client about this research. And then I told her a story about one of my own experiences. I was meeting with a superior at work, and she asked me to lead an extremely large, high visibility project. As soon as she explained what she wanted me to do, a sinking, sick feeling swept over my stomach. I had never had such a physical reaction to being asked to take on a a project before, and I didn’t really understand it. But for some reason, I listened to it, and I declined to take on the project. I knew as I did so that my boss would never again ask me to take on any important high profile project, but somehow I just couldn’t get past that gut feeling that it was the wrong decision. Turned out, my gut was right. Six months later, for complex reasons that had nothing to do with the person leading the project, the high visibility project had become a quagmire that was going nowhere. I learned a lot about the importance of listening to my gut from that experience.

            I encouraged my client to review her research one last time and then to let go of the intellectual focus of her decision-making and turn her attention to her gut feeling. A couple of days later, she sent her deposit to University A. It’s too soon to say whether she will second guess herself, but I believe that by doing extensive research AND relying on her gut reaction, she made the best decision possible under the circumstances. Decision making is more art than science, and like artists, we have to rely on sensory information as well as cognitive information to make good choices.

           What about you? Have you ever ignored your gut response and regretted it later? Or have you gone with your gut only to realize later that your gut was wrong? I’d love to hear your thoughts.