by Niall Doherty

I wrote last week about being the other man. Finding myself unclear on the ethics of such a situation, I asked readers such as your fine self the following question:

Is it wrong to get involved with someone who is already in a committed relationship, someone who’s going behind their partner’s back to get jiggy with you? Why or why not?

Several responses were similar, along these lines:

  • What does your gut say?
  • What does that little inner voice tell you?
  • Trust your conscience.

I didn’t take such responses very seriously. See, I don’t believe that following your gut1 is always the best course of action. In fact, sometimes I believe it can get you in trouble.

Here’s why…

How to choose a car

Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, once ran a series of practical experiments. He showed a bunch of people descriptions of four different used cars, each rated in four different categories. Dijksterhuis designed the experiment so that one car was objectively ideal, with predominantly positive aspects. He allowed each participant a few minutes to compare the four vehicles, and then asked them to select whichever they liked most. Under these conditions, more than 50 percent of the group ended up choosing the best car.

Dijksterhuis then repeated the experiment with a different group of people, this time adding a twist: After they were shown the automotive facts, Dijksterhuis distracted the group for a few minutes with some simple word games. The idea here was to prevent the participants from consciously thinking about their decision; they would have to rely on their emotions rather than reasoning to choose the best car. Once the word games were done, Dijksterhuis jumped back in and asked the participants to make their choice.

The result? The second group fared much worse than the first when it came to choosing the best car.

No real surprise, right? Most of us would expect that someone who takes time to consciously think about their decisions would, for the most part, make better choices than someone who just relies on their emotions (read: gut) all the time. Rational analysis wins out.

But not so fast. Dijksterhuis wasn’t done yet. He went ahead and repeated the experiment, only this time he rated each car in twelve different categories instead of four. Again he presented the information to two groups, one being allowed a few minutes to consciously compare the different vehicles while the other was distracted and asked to make a decision based on their gut instinct.

Who fared better now?

The group who were given time to think ended up choosing the ideal car less than 25 percent of the time (i.e. worse than random chance), while the group who were forced to choose with their emotions managed to select the best car nearly 60 percent of the time. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his fascinating book How We Decide

“[Those in the second group] were able to sift through the clutter of automotive facts and find the ideal alternative. The best car was associated with the most positive feelings. These irrational choosers were the best decision-makers by far.”

As Lehrer goes on to explain in the book, Dijksterhuis found the same phenomenon outside the lab, testing subjects in the real world.

So what?

Here’s the conclusion drawn from the aforementioned experiments and others like them: Your prefrontal cortex (i.e. your rational brain) can’t handle more than a few pieces of information at a time. As a result, it often oversimplifies complex situations and returns a less than ideal solution. So when it comes to making important decisions, Dijksterhuis advises the following…

“Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.”

Lehrer adds…

“If the decision doesn’t matter all that much, the prefrontal cortex should take the time to carefully assess and analyze the options. […] It might sound ridiculous but it makes scientific sense: Think less about those items that you care a lot about. Don’t be afraid to let your emotions choose.”

I should emphasize that, based on the information in Lehrer’s book, it’s only wise to trust your emotions when you’ve exposed yourself to lots of information related to the decision at hand. For example, a veteran, professional poker player can better trust his instincts in a big game than someone new to tournament play. Why? Because the veteran has absorbed much more information into his subconscious via extensive experience. Thus, when he feels his gut twinge, it’s usually for a legitimate reason.

Not so much for the newbie.2

Back to “the other man” issue

All that to say, I didn’t feel comfortable trusting my gut when it came to “the other man” issue. For one thing, my gut felt fine about hooking up with married women. Not just in theory, but in practice, too. I’m aware though that a lack of negative emotions isn’t always a good indication that I’m making smart decisions. After all, plenty of people cheat on their spouses and feel fine about it. Plenty of criminals clearly do wrong but experience no feelings of remorse.

Secondly, I was aware that I didn’t have much experience (neither in theory nor in practice) with the issue in question. I simply hadn’t thought about it much, questioned my assumptions, or had someone challenge me on the topic.

Now though, I believe I’m in a better place to make a smart decision regarding this issue. I read through the dozens of comments and emails I received in response to that post last week. I absorbed all those different arguments and perspectives, many of which I’d never come across before. My subconscious has been busy digesting all that info for the past few days.

So, next time I have the opportunity to get jiggy with some lady who’s already in a committed relationship, I can listen to my gut and feel confident that it will steer me right. In fact, I’m pretty sure it already has 😉

To summarize

You should trust your gut when…

  • You have lots of experience (ideally practical) within the domain that you’re making the decision.

You should rely more on your rational brain when…

  • The problem is simple or novel.
  • Your decision doesn’t matter much.

Comments are open.

UPDATE: A few days after publishing this post a friend alerted me to the fact that Jonah Lehrer, the author of the book How We Decide which I quote from above, has lost a lot of credibility after he was revealed last year to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his book Imagine. I haven’t been able to find any accusations of shadiness regarding Lehrer’s work on How We Decide, however, so the information shared above would appear to still stand strong. As always though, I recommend you do your own research and think for yourself before you go believing anything you read on this blog.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I use the words gut, conscience, intuition, and subconscious somewhat interchangeably to refer to that internal compass that helps you decide a course of action.
  2. Malcolm Gladwell draws the same conclusion in Blink: “…being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous course of education and experience.”