What psychology says about believing negative gut instinct

Someone at sometime has probably told you to just “go with your gut,” suggesting that when faced with a moment of indecision the best idea…

Gut instinct can be helpful, but for some people it can cause irrational fears. (Shutterstock)

Someone at sometime has probably told you to just “go with your gut,” suggesting that when faced with a moment of indecision the best idea is to trust your instincts.

This intuitive feeling is what we call “gut instinct,” and while some people swear by it, other may be debilitated by it. The issue is what psychologists call fear-induced inference, and it occurs when people have a gut instinct about something negative and take that as evidence something must be going on.

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For example, someone in a relationship may be insecure from past experiences, and they have a false gut instinct that their current partner is being unfaithful. Because this scenario has proved true in the past, the person takes their gut instinct as fact, when in reality there may be nothing wrong.

A similar example would be the parent who hasn’t seen their teenage child in a few hours. They start to worry, and that gut feeling leads them to assume and believe the child is in trouble.

How does fear-induced inference work?

When gut instinct leads to a negative belief, experts say this has to do with the feedback loop between emotions and judgmental response.  A report from Psychology Today gives this example as a means to understand it:

“Consider the example of Othello in Shakespeare’s play, who becomes convinced that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with minimal basis for the belief. Iago’s misinformation leads Othello to suspect that Desdemona is cheating, but this makes him feel bad, which in turn makes him even more suspicious of her. The fact that she might be unfaithful causes him to feel bad about her, which loops to make him more suspicious of her. The general case is that thinking that things are bad (with children or anything else that matters) causes you to feel bad, which in turn leads you to become more convinced that things are bad.”

Now, tie that kind of emotional feedback to gut instinct, and you can see why believing your intuition isn’t always in your best interest. Because there is a common belief that gut instinct is always right, individuals who are already experiencing fear-induced inference further solidify their negative beliefs by adding “evidence” in the form of instinct.

This cycle can prevent people from leading happy, productive lives, and it can affect individuals in almost every aspect of life. Research suggests people use gut instinct for everything from religion to sports and economics.

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How to overcome the negative gut instinct

Intuition isn’t something that should be avoided–it can be beneficial in many situations. For people who have chronic, negative experiences with gut instinct, however, taking action to move away from this cycle is important.

To do this, asking yourself some simple questions may be a good start:

1. What is the full range of evidence for the belief that is making you scared or happy?

2. What are the alternative explanations for this evidence?

3. What do other people who do not have your fears and motivations think about your belief?

When in doubt, ask your friends and family their opinions. Gut instinct is useful when there is no one around for help, but the perspectives of other can sometimes reveal when you are being irrational. If the majority of those around you with opinions you respect say you should rethink a situation, resist the urge to give in to your gut instinct.