When Our Instincts Betray Us: How To Make Better Decisions
We often listen to our bodies and our emotions when making very serious decisions. We might move in with someone we barely know because we feel a variety of positive feelings. We might hire a babysitter because we feel comfortable and at ease. We might buy a house partly because we feel happy and giddy. If we don’t feel the warning signs of nervousness — all-over tension or trembling, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat or nausea — we assume we’re totally in the clear. So we end up giving our emotions and physical sensations a lot of say.
But according to retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D, relying on our so-called “gut instincts” can get us into trouble — and in some cases, big trouble. For starters, the term “gut instinct” is a “nebulous entity,” said O’Toole who’s also co-author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us with writer Alisa Bowman. In our culture, we say that some people have better instincts than others, but there’s no way to measure the effectiveness of our instincts or identify ways to improve them, O’Toole said.
O’Toole compared the idea of gut instincts to the Wizard of Oz, a mysterious, powerful and all-mighty figure who turned out to be anything but. Similarly, “Relying on something that is so nebulous and mystical [as gut instincts] is dangerous,” O’Toole said. Take the example of your car breaking down on an empty highway at midnight. A person stops and offers to give you a ride. You might feel tense and get butterflies in your stomach. Or you may feel just fine and assume they’re just a Good Samaritan. The problem is that your gut instincts can lead you to make a potentially dangerous decision. Of course, not all decisions seem so high-risk at first. For instance, what if your child wants to sleep over their friend’s house? But more on that later.
Trusting something as vague as your gut instincts doesn’t work, and it creates the idea that decision-making is some innate ability. Rather, it’s a skill and process. (“Like any other skill, it’s perishable if you stop practicing it,” O’Toole said.) In Dangerous Instincts, O’Toole and Bowman provide readers with an approach for making wise decisions. Here’s more on why we make bad decisions and how to make good ones.
Why We Make Bad Decisions
“Many people are intimidated by decision-making,” O’Toole said. Because they don’t enjoy it or feel insecure about it, they tend to make decisions quickly or poorly, she said.
Emotions hamper decision-making. For instance, blindly falling in love with a house, and paying little attention to the inspection results, may leave you with a money pit. Hating your job and impulsively quitting may leave you with little money. Inviting in a good-looking stranger who you feel an instant connection with may leave you in a dicey situation. Emotions and sensible decisions don’t mix. Making serious decisions in an emotional state [takes] away our analytical skills,” O’Toole said.
Fatigue also can impair decision-making. When we’re tired, we tend to make the easiest and fastest choice, and we don’t think much of the negative consequences. For instance, after a long day of work, how much easier is it to let your child stay over at a friend’s house?
How To Make SMART Decisions
O’Toole helps readers learn how to make SMART decisions, a term she created to stand for a “sound method of assessing and recognizing trouble.” Rather than letting emotions drive your decisions, you use an analytical process. This requires some work, as O’Toole said, but it’s worth it.