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When it comes to relationships, is it better to trust your gut?

trust your gut

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has a piece in the New York Times covering research showing that feeling beats thinking when it comes to relationship predictions:

It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.

In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the “gut feeling” group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.

In fact, trusting your feelings improves predictive accuracy in many areas:

Seven studies show that compared to people with lower trust in their feelings, those with higher trust in their feelings were better able to predict the outcome of a wide variety of future events, including (a) future movie successes, (b) the 2008 U.S. Democratic Presidential nominee, (c) the winner of American Idol, (d) movements of the Dow Jones Index, and even (e) the weather. The superiority of predictions under high trust in feelings held both when people were experimentally induced to trust or not trust their feelings and when people’s chronic tendency to trust or not trust their feelings was simply measured. It further appears that it is high trust in feelings that improves prediction accuracy rather than low trust in feelings that impairs it. 

Just like “don’t think of pink elephants” makes you think of pink elephants, fighting feelings often increases their effect.

Via The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

…when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to suppress such thoughts.

Certainly there are times when we need to think things through and be rational. So how do you know whether to trust your feelings or not?

For simple decisions without many factors involved (What soda should I buy?) be rational.

For very complex or weighty decisions (Am I in love?) trust your gut.

Via How We Decide:

If the decision doesn’t matter all that much, the prefrontal cortex should take the time to carefully assess and analyze the options. On the other hand, for important decisions about complex items-leather couches, cars, and apartments, for example-categorizing by price alone will eliminate a lot of essential information. Perhaps the cheapest couch is of inferior quality, or maybe you don’t like the way it looks. And should anyone really choose an apartment or a car based on a single variable, such as the monthly rent or the amount of horsepower? As Dijksterhuis demonstrated, when you ask the prefrontal cortex to make these sorts of decisions, it makes consistent mistakes. You’ll end up with an ugly couch in the wrong apartment. 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.

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About Eric Barker