(Don’t) Trust Your Instincts

Your brain, instincts, gut feelings, emotions, and hunches are all liars. They aren’t doing it on purpose, but they inherently function by jumping to conclusions, saving time, conserving energy, and valuing speed over accuracy. Their goal is to function on less information, and the less of it, the better. Not quite crystal-clear thinking.   Your feelings and emotions have the ability to overpower you and completely color your thinking. But that’s confusing feelings for facts. They are entirely separate things. Reality is in fact neutral.

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(Don’t) Trust Your Instincts

There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self. – Benjamin Franklin
Humans tend to place a lot of value on instinct. Especially as the pace of modern life forces us at times to think quickly on our feet and make immediate decisions, we believe that having superior instinct helps us get along. That’s certainly true to an extent. But the problem is that sometimes we confuse instinct as a substitute for good judgment. However, instinct and good judgment are entirely separate things. Instinct may sometimes result overlap with good judgment, but they are not interchangeable.
Good judgment comes through a process of experience over time. Just as the Grand Canyon was created through an incredibly long process, good judgment requires a similar amount of refinement and progress. Only then can you develop a sense of intuition that is likely to lead to an accurate and helpful answer.
Good judgment is invariably balanced and thorough. Neither of those words describes our instincts.
Instincts are otherwise known as gut feelings or hunches, and, unless you are the literary detective known as Sherlock Holmes, are probably wrong the vast majority of the time. Instinct by definition is evaluating based on limited information. It turns out that when we make quick decisions based on instinct, we are usually jumping to conclusions and not seeing the whole picture. We already know that humans are predisposed to prefer speed and certainty over accuracy, and that’s why it’s so important to act against what your instincts want to tell you.
In addition to being Sherlock Holmes, unless you have the eye of an eagle, the ears of a rabbit, and the nose of a bloodhound, there’s just no way your instinct is going to be correct on a consistent basis.
Let’s take the field of cooking to illustrate the difference. An experienced chef will be able to use his judgment, based on years of experience, to design a menu that will be versatile and tasty. He will be able to do this time after time, through a variety of different cuisines. Compare this to the instincts of a neophyte chef. On rare occasions, the neophyte chef’s menu might be preferable because there is an overlap between instinct and good judgment. But instinct is going to fail him in the long run without deeper knowledge.
We are biologically programmed to go with the first thought that pops into our head, which is a recipe for disaster. This chapter covers how to overcome the traps that come from relying on that initial flood of certainty in many ways, from our emotions, perspective, perception, and even memories. This will involve creating psychological distance from yourself to stop acting against your own interests.

Feelings Aren’t Facts

One common error that all of us have made at some point in our lives is interpreting our emotional responses as truth—that is, confusing our feelings for facts. We observe or experience a situation that causes certain feelings to stir, and we interpret them not as subjective interpretations, but tangible reality.
This is otherwise known as emotional reasoning, and it is the polar opposite of clear thought. In emotional reasoning, you agree with the following statement: “I feel this way, therefore it must be true.” If you feel negatively about a certain person, they must be terrible people. If you feel optimistically about a test, it must be easy. If you feel doubtful about a promise, the person on the other side of the promise must be scheming something. Emotions, both mild and intense, create an altered reality.
It’s often a process that evades our conscious thought, which makes it tough to spot.
On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that emotions can disrupt our thinking so powerfully. Emotions have overlapping purposes with instincts; they are both “act first, analyze later” types of thinking, and this is something that’s kept us alive as a species. Both emotions and instinct were designed to be able to short circuit our brains and push analytical thought out of the way in favor of action.
While engaging in this behavior, observed evidence is discarded in favor of the truth of your feelings about the event. Emotional reasoning is one of the most dangerous obstacles to clear thought because it can be so wildly different from reality and can change in the span of minutes. Is reality actually changing moment by moment? Of course not! Only your emotions are changing that quickly.

Just like you wouldn’t go grocery shopping when hungry, you shouldn’t evaluate anything when emotional. Always take time to return to a calm state before making decisions or committing yourself to a specific course of action.

Reality is neutral, and it is your emotions that cause you to perceive it in any particular way. Viewing a situation with emotional reasoning is like watching a completely benign scene with horror music being played over it. And then joyous music. And then the next minute, music fitting for a clown’s entrance. Now compound this with the act that everyone has a different soundtrack playing over the same scene. You won’t know what’s really happening in front of your face because the music will influence you a certain way. The only hope you have is to turn off the music—by removing emotions from the equation as best you can.

Phobias are a prime example of how we confuse facts and feelings. An agoraphobic has a fear of outside or open places that offer no immediate escape route. There’s no established factual basis for this kind of fear, especially since there are so many people who aren’t agoraphobic. Sure, bad things can happen to someone when they’re outside the home, but the huge majority of the time they don’t. But an agoraphobic’s fear has irrationally turned itself into a fact in their mind; therefore, they’re not leaving the house anytime soon.
Those who interpret feeling as facts have it completely backward. Our emotions are products of our thoughts. They are how we decide to interpret what we experience based on the observations and information we’ve received from the world around us.
I’m not suggesting you not have feelings—that’s impossible. But you can and should treat your feelings like every other bit of information you receive. It should be one factor into how you think and evaluate situations and people. There might be a reason you are feeling a certain emotion; it might also exist because of entirely unrelated matters. The simple truth is that when we are emotionally invested, we lack the proper perspective to think clearly. Think of it as standing too close to a brick wall such that you can’t see the entire building, only a singular brick. You’d need distance to see reality.
Focus on separating your emotional reaction from your actual response. Feel the first emotional reaction and label it as drastic and emotionally influenced. Let it pass or dissipate. Now, begin to dissect it. Only at this point can you think clearly and rationally. Of course, it has to be mentioned that this isn’t a point on becoming a cold, calculating robot—although for our purposes of clear thinking, there could be worse things.
This is a point to make sure you aren’t being controlled by emotion, which is not based on evidence or what’s in front of you—it’s based on past experiences, assumptions, or unfair associations. Feel your feelings—sometimes they are a signal for something that you don’t consciously perceive, which is why they shouldn’t be totally discounted—but don’t become overwhelmed by them. Also beware that people are triggers for strong emotions, and this can distort reality even more than usual.