Home » Library » When Our Instincts Betray Us: How To Make Better Decisions

When Our Instincts Betray Us: How To Make Better Decisions

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.

Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

At first, it’s important to identify whether your decision will have long-term effects. O’Toole and Bowman suggest thinking about the potential positive and negative ramifications of your decision for both you and others in a week, six months, a year and three years from now.

Next, the goal is to gather as much information as possible. Again, take the sleepover example where you either don’t know the parents of your child’s friend very well or at all. This decision can have potentially devastating long-term consequences, and you want to rule out “the most imminent dangers to your child,” such as people “who will hurt them physically, abuse them sexually, or [have] weapons, drugs or alcohol around,” O’Toole said.

She’s seen many examples throughout her career of the perfect family who turned out to be very dysfunctional behind closed doors. “You have an obligation as a parent to know as much as you can inside of [another family’s] home.” When collecting your data, avoid focusing on superficial qualities like looks, intelligence, church attendance, employment, education and friendliness. Dig deeper and focus on people’s actions.

You might consider the following questions, according to O’Toole: Does the family have dangerous pets? Do they have older sons or daughters who are bullies? Do they have other friends who spend a lot of time at their house? What is their philosophy on drugs and alcohol? How does the family treat each other in public? How do they treat others? If they come over for dinner, what are the dynamics among them? What happens when the kids get too loud? How does the family interact with your children?

In Dangerous Instincts, O’Toole and Bowman also list a variety of questions to consider when gathering information, such as: “Is there any information that I’ve overlooked or neglected to gather?” “Have I looked at all the aspects of each person involved” including “their personal, family, work, private and secret lives?” “Is there something else I need to know about that I don’t have time to find out?”

When you have your data, O’Toole and Bowman provide another list of questions to help you come to a conclusion. Some of the questions they suggest asking yourself: “Does all the information fit together? If not, why not?” “Am I seeing a pattern of behavior?” “Does my assessment tell me what to decide and how to prioritize the actions I will need to take to handle the situation?”

In general, when making decisions, you also want to make sure that you don’t feel pressured or rushed and don’t let stress, emotions or being in love dictate what you do, O’Toole and Bowman note in Dangerous Instincts. What also might improve your decision-making process is to recall five major decisions you’ve made in the last five years, O’Toole said. Consider how you made these decisions and what went wrong. Doing so can help you know your weak points and watch out for them in the future.

You can learn more about Mary Ellen O’Toole and her work at her website.

When Our Instincts Betray Us: How To Make Better Decisions

This article features affiliate links to, where a small commission is paid to Psych Central if a book is purchased. Thank you for your support of Psych Central!

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). When Our Instincts Betray Us: How To Make Better Decisions. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.