Was Malcolm Gladwell right? Can you trust your intuition?


In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating bestseller Blink, he describes many situations where you do your best thinking when you don’t think at all. But he also shows plenty of scenarios where your instincts are way off.

What does the research say? How do you know when to trust your gut — and when not to?


You can trust your intuition… Sometimes

You make up your mind about someone in 100 milliseconds. Literally. And more often than not, you’re right.

In just five minutes you can often evaluate people with approximately 70% accuracy.

Via Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:

The term thin slice comes from a frequently cited article by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, in which subjects evaluated thirty-second silent video clips of instructors teaching a class.’ Subsequent analysis found that these brief evaluations predicted the instructors’ end-of-semester student ratings… Across a wide range of studies, Ambady and Rosenthal found that observations lasting up to five minutes had an average correlation of r = .39 with subsequent behavior, which corresponds to 70 percent accuracy at predicting outcomes…

Research has shown many situations where your gut is more likely to be right than wrong:

  • With children and adults you can probably trust the vibe you get about how smart they are. (It’s trickier with teens and the elderly.)
  • If you listen to your partner’s voice and think they might cheat on you, there’s a fair chance you’re right.


…and sometimes our instincts are dead wrong

The human brain uses shortcuts so it can make decisions quickly and effortlessly. While useful in most situations, these “cognitive biases” lead us hopelessly astray in other areas.

Like I said earlier, you make up your mind about someone in 100 milliseconds. And you’re usually right. But what happens when you’re wrong? Does more time allow you to correct your mistake? No — when you’re given additional time you become more convinced you’re right.

Our biases show through in daily life all the time:

  • Know it or not, you often decide whether or not to trust someone based on crazy reasons. How attractive someone is, whether they’re the same gender as you are, whether someone blushes, and the state of your ever-changing mood all affect whether you trust somebody.
  • Research shows things that are easy for our brain to process feel more true than concepts that require work.
  • We prefer eloquence over honesty: “People who dodge questions artfully are liked and trusted more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish.

The patients viewing these videos found the confident doctors most satisfying, and they rated the one who looked in a book to be the least satisfying of all.

You may be thinking “I don’t do that.” But one of the reasons you aren’t able to correct for these biases is because of just that kind of delusional overconfidence.

David Brooks, author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement points out overestimating our abilities is our natural state:

Human beings are overconfidence machines. Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave questionnaires to more than two thousand executives in order to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were ninety-per-cent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong sixty-one per cent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a ninety-five per cent chance of being right; in fact, eighty per cent of them were wrong. Ninety-nine per cent of the respondents overestimated their success.

Malcolm Gladwell gave a great talk about why the overconfidence of smart people can be far more dangerous than the incompetence of stupid people.

And if you’re not focused and paying attention, your brain can be extremely unreliable.

As the research of Dan Simons demonstrates, you may not even notice if the person in front of you is replaced with someone completely different:


So what should you do?

Obviously, in the areas I mentioned above you now know when you can or can’t trust your gut.

Past that, there’s no replacement for observing you’re own behavior and seeing what you’re right and wrong about. (And write them down. You can’t trust your memory. No, you can’t.)

But are there any good rules of thumb? Here are two:

1) Definitely trust your gut on a subject — if it’s something you’re an expert at:

A new study from researchers at Rice University, George Mason University and Boston College suggests you should trust your gut — but only if you’re an expert… Across both studies, participants who possessed expertise within the task domain performed on average just as well intuitively as analytically. In addition, experts significantly outperformed novices when making their decisions intuitively but not when making their decisions analytically.

And this research has been replicated. It’s interesting to note that Malcolm Gladwell’s follow up to Blink was a book about expertise: Outliers.

2) For simple decisions without many factors involved (What soda should I buy?) be rational. For very complex or weighty decisions (What career should I pursue?) 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.

Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

Can you learn to dissect people’s personalities from a distance like Sherlock Holmes?

What does it take to become an expert at anything?

Malcolm Gladwell asks “Is it better to come in first… or third?”


Subscribe to the newsletter