4 Reasons You Can't Trust Your Gut

Last Updated Oct 14, 2011 10:21 AM EDT

How do you make your big decisions? If you're like most of us, it's probably some combination of gathering facts, relying on experience, and leaning on your instincts. But according to Mary Ellen O'Toole, an FBI profiler whose new book, Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us, is out this week, you're probably leaving yourself open to unnecessary dangers. O'Toole has worked on many high-profile cases including the Elizabeth Smart abduction, and the pursuit of the Unabomber. I asked her a few questions about how to make better choices.

LV: Many people say we should listen to an inner voice when making important decisions. What do you think of this idea?
O'Toole: The "gut" is this nebulous thing somewhere in the body, presumably near the anatomical guts or intestines. Yet no one has ever located this mystical body part, so we can't be sure of its location. Maybe it is actually in the toe. (I'm just kidding!)

My point is that the mystical gut cannot be found or measured. We cannot improve it or define it. We can't even compare the accuracy of our gut instincts or feelings to the accuracy of others' gut feelings. We don't know how events and life circumstances impact our gut. We don't know when our gut is having a bad day. Does our gut get better with experience? Is it subject to disease? No one knows. Nonetheless, despite the mystical, magical properties we ascribe to it, many of us assume our gut is among the best, and we rely on it to guide us through life and to help us make life-changing decisions. Doesn't that sound a little dangerous to you? It does to me. Most people know not to trust their guts to help them navigate a car while blindfolded because they know that their guts are faulty. Yet they turn around and trust their guts to help them make serious decisions such who to trust to baby-sit their children or hire to manage their money.

LV: After a killer is apprehended, news stories always quote a neighbor saying, "We had no idea, he seemed so nice!" Why is that, and what lessons can we take for day-to-day decision making?
O'Toole: Many people judge whether or not someone is dangerous based on superficial traits and characteristics such as what they look like, what their home looks like, where they work, what they wear, and who their family is. For instance, most people would regard the clean-cut father who lives down the street, seems friendly and who drives to work everyday while wearing a suit as "not dangerous." Yet how he dresses, whether he smiles, what he does for a living, and whether he has children tells you little to nothing about whether he poses a threat to you and your family.

Dangerous people are quite capable of being good-looking and charming. Take a look at Ted Bundy or Joran van der Sloot's photos (the ones that are not police mug shots) and tell me whether you would have been able to tell, just from looking at them, that they are dangerous. I doubt you could. People who are professionally dangerous (such as serial killers) understand the importance of maintaining an outward facade of normalcy. They try to blend in, be accepted and not seem suspicious.

LV: When making hiring decisions, what are the big red flags that someone is a bad idea (even if the person seems perfectly likable and competent)?
O'Toole: Notice whether the applicant evades your questions when you ask about prior clients, positions or employers. Direct your questions toward issues that could help you identify previous interpersonal problems. You want to know whether they've had problems in the past with clients, coworkers, or supervisors and how they've handled those problems. You might ask:
  • Has anyone criticized your work in the past? If so what was your reaction?
  • Have previous clients/coworkers/supervisors asked you to modify your work after you thought the job was done? If so, what did you do?
  • Have you had disagreements with clients/coworkers/supervisors in the past? If so, how did you resolve them?
Notice if the person you are interviewing changes the subject, gives you an answer that doesn't match the question, or says "not really." Note that "not really" does not usually mean "no." It usually means "yes, sometimes."

If you are a homeowner who is hiring help, also ask questions about their background and who else they will be bringing inside the home. Ask questions about any criminal history - both theirs and their employees. Watch for behavior that suggests they are more interested in you, your children or your possessions. For instance, if someone asks you, "How many children do you have?" consider that a red flag. This is the type of question that should be noted and followed up on to see the motives behind their curiosity.

Here are a few more inappropriate comments that stand out as red flags:
  • Do you live here alone?
  • Are you married?
  • Who else will be here while I am working?
  • You have a lot of nice things. What's that worth?
  • Do you have an alarm system?
LV: Are our gut instincts ever too paranoid, or is it usually the other way around?
O'Toole: This is the problem with gut instincts. There is no way to put a value on them. There's no way to test whether your gut instincts are too paranoid or not paranoid enough, so you can never relax. Some people are naturally more suspicious than others, but that is a result of personality and experience. For example, someone who has been robbed or assaulted in the past may be more suspicious than someone who has never had that experience. When a naturally suspicious person relies on their gut to tell them if danger is in their midst, they tend to over react. They will be suspicious of everyone from the mail carrier to their next-door neighbor. They have no reliable system for vetting people, so they suspect everyone of wrongdoing and end up feeling fearful most of the time, even when there's no reason to be scared.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are other people who are very naive and naturally trusting. When people like this rely on their gut to make decisions, they end up trusting everyone and, as a result, expose themselves to all degrees and levels of danger - physical, emotional, and financial. They are often blindsided by catastrophe and often remark, "I never saw that one coming."
Most people probably fall somewhere between those two extremes. I'm guessing if you think back over your life, you will be able to think of times when you were overly naïve (and possibly blind sided as a result) and other times when you were overly suspicious, and experienced unnecessary fear and anxiety as a result.

Related: Photo courtesy flickr user bobolink

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