Reliance on “gut instinct” can be a potential pitfall for mentors, new research shows

Posted by Jeff Sossamon,

Going with your intuition could make you judge others’ moral transgressions more harshly and keep you from changing your mind, even after considering all the facts, a new study suggests.

The findings show that people who strongly rely on intuition automatically condemn actions they perceive to be morally wrong, even if there is no actual harm.

In psychology, intuition, or “gut instinct,” is defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for reasoning.

“It is now widely acknowledged that intuitive processing influences moral judgment,” says Sarah Ward, a doctoral candidate in social and personality psychology at the University of Missouri.

“We thought people who were more likely to trust their intuition would be more likely to condemn things that are shocking, whereas people who don’t rely on gut feelings would not condemn these same actions as strongly,” Ward says.

Ward and Laura King, professor of psychological sciences, had study participants read through a series of scenarios and judge whether the action was wrong, such as an individual giving a gift to a partner that had previously been purchased for an ex.

The researchers then wanted to determine if getting people to think about these actions—asking them why they thought it was morally wrong or describing their emotional response—would lead to fewer individual differences in how people responded.

“We consistently found that people who are more prone to rely on intuition condemned these actions,” Ward says. “If everybody reasons about these things, then the people who had that initial gut reaction might then decide, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad—it’s not harmful,’ and what we found is that after people deliberated, in general they did condemn these actions less, but people who strongly relied on their intuitive instincts condemned these actions more harshly than others.”

The final experiment asked participants to make rapid, two-second decisions when presented with morally ambiguous scenarios.

“What we found is they still mattered,” Ward says. “People who were more intuitive still condemned these morally ambiguous actions even on a two-second snap judgment, which suggests this tendency to rely on intuition relates to all kinds of moral decisions, whether one judges them rapidly or thinks through the implications.

“This is important because this research has assumed everybody is using intuition to guide these judgments, but what we are finding is there is a lot of individual variability,” says Ward.

People may not realize intuitive reactions to issues often guide their ideas about what is morally wrong rather than more rational considerations, like whether the actions are harmful, Ward says.

She adds that individuals tend to think of themselves as very rational decision makers unswayed by intuition and emotion; however, it’s likely that intuitive responses among those who tend to trust their intuition heavily influence moral judgments.

Bottom Line for Mentors

This research brings up an important consideration for working with youth. Many young people seeking a mentor have a broad range of experiences, not all of them positive. It can be harmful to a young person seeking a positive connection when their past actions or experiences are immediately judged harshly “from the gut” as described in this research. Such judgments, once made, are difficult to dislodge.

As the authors quoted above state, many people feel that they are, above all, rational decision makers when it comes to their day-to-day interactions. This, however, is less the case than we believe. It is important for mentors to be aware of the ways in which they measure the actions of others, and to create space for themselves to look beyond their initial gut reactions. Often, there is more to the story, but that exploration, which can be a key aspect of building a trusting relationship, can be foreclosed by snap judgments.

To access the original research, click here.