When to Trust Your Gut

By Shlomo Maital


Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, for his pioneering contribution to how people make decisions under uncertainty.

In 2009 Kahneman debated Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition,  about a crucial question: When should people trust their intuition, and when should they suspect it? The debate was published in the American Psychologist. Here is a brief summary, thanks to McKinsey Quarterly and their interview of the two following the original article:

   McKinsey Quarterly:  In your recent American Psychology article, you asked a question that should be interesting to just about all executives: “Under what conditions are the intuitions of professionals worthy of trust?” What’s your answer? When can executives trust their guts?”

         Gary Klein: It depends on what you mean by “trust.” If you mean, “My gut feeling is telling me this; therefore I can act on it and I don’t have to worry,” we say you should never trust your gut. You need to take your gut feeling as an important data point, but then you have to consciously and deliberately evaluate it, to see if it makes sense in this context. You need strategies that help rule things out. That’s the opposite of saying, “This is what my gut is telling me; let me gather information to confirm it.”

     Daniel Kahneman: There are some conditions where you have to trust your intuition. When you are under time pressure for a decision, you need to follow intuition. My general view, though, would be that you should not take your intuitions at face value. Overconfidence is a powerful source of illusions, primarily determined by the quality and coherence of the story that you can construct, not by its validity. If people can construct a simple and coherent story, they will feel confident regardless of how well grounded it is in reality.

McKinsey Quarterly: Is intuition more reliable under certain conditions?

   Gary Klein: We identified two.  First, there needs to be a certain structure to a situation, a certain predictability that allows you to have a basis for the intuition. If a situation is very, very turbulent, we say it has low validity, and there’s no basis for intuition. For example, you shouldn’t trust the judgments of stock brokers picking indivi dual stocks. The second factor is whether decision makers have a chance to get feedback on their judgments, so that they can strengthen them and gain expertise. If those criteria aren’t met, then intuitions aren’t going to be trustworthy.

   Daniel Kahneman: This is an area of difference between Gary and me. I would be wary of experts’ intuition, except when they deal with something that they have dealt with a lot in the past. Surgeons, for example, do many operations of a given kind, and they learn what problems they’re going to encounter. But when problems are unique, or fairly unique, then I would be less trusting of intuition than Gary is. One of the problems with expertise is that people have it in some domains and not in others. So experts don’t know exactly where the boundaries of their expertise are.

   McKinsey Quarterly: Yet senior executives want to make good decisions. Do you have any final words of wisdom for them in that quest?

     Daniel Kahneman: My single piece of advice would be to improve the quality of meetings—that seems pretty strategic to improving the quality of decision making. People spend a lot of time in meetings. You want meetings to be short. People should have a lot of information, and you want to decorrelate errors.

   Gary Klein: What concerns me is the tendency to marginalize people who disagree with you at meetings. There’s too much intolerance for challenge. As a leader, you can say the right things—for instance, everybody should share their opinions. But people are too smart to do that, because it’s risky. So when people raise an idea that doesn’t make sense to you as a leader, rather than ask what’s wrong with them, you should be curious about why they’re taking the position. Curiosity is a counterforce for contempt when people are making unpopular statements.