Going for the Gut

Our heroes may crunch the numbers, but we like them to play their hunches.

In the recent book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer makes the case for intuition. Curiously, many assessments of the book took for granted that his arguments, familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, cut against conventional wisdom--that trusting intuition is, in fact, counterintuitive. As one friendly interviewer, casting Gigerenzer as a contrarian, put it: "In modern society, gut thinking has a bad reputation."

Oh, really? Maybe it's true that at some point we all promised our parents that we'd be careful, rational, empirical decision makers, but beyond that, it's not easy to find evidence that ours is a society that frowns on gut thinking. Are the narratives of popular culture dominated by super-rational heroes triumphing over seat-of-the-pants gut-trusting bad guys? Actually, it's just the opposite: From Captain Kirk to Indiana Jones to Rambo to Tony Soprano to the hero of every Western ever made, we're drawn to the character who follows a hunch and wins.

And it's just as true in the business world. Who idolizes the plodding studiers of spreadsheets? Nobody. The most widely celebrated heroes of capitalism are the Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Mark Cuban types--the ones who scorn what the focus groups and the gurus say and follow their superior instincts into the highest possible tax bracket. Even corporate honchos whose success has had much to do with number crunching know that the rest of us look up to those who defy the odds, not those who play them. Did Jack Welch call his first book Notes Regarding Efficiency Gains Related to Six Sigma? No. He called it Jack: Straight From the Gut.

Or consider a pop-culture narrative that is partly about business. The heroine of William Gibson's best-selling 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition, is one of the most gut-driven characters ever: Cayce Pollard, a professional cool hunter, hired by corporations because her almost-supernatural instincts for whether, say, a certain logo would catch on in the marketplace trump all data and research. All she has to do is look at it, and she knows.

Amusingly, Pollard has basically become the model for scores of real-life trend spotters who present themselves as golden-gut types--and who seem to have no trouble finding corporate clients who haven't gotten the memo about gut thinking's "bad reputation."

Most of us, then, are quite open to hearing that we should trust our hunches. That's what we do most of the time, anyway. And that's precisely why trust-your-gut arguments are so popular--they're telling us exactly what we want to hear. Exhibit A: Blink, Gladwell's entertaining 2005 best-seller, which draws in part on Gigerenzer's research. Blink is actually pretty careful in its treatment of when gut instincts help us and when they fail us, but it's the bit about trusting your instincts that caught many readers' attention.

After all, like Gigerenzer's book, Blink's arguments were backed by hard data. Now there's the ultimate payoff: rational proof that we can stop worrying about rational proof.

But you're not really surprised to hear that, are you? I bet you knew it all along. I bet you could feel it. In your gut.

Rob Walker is the "Consumed" columnist for The New York Times Magazine and writes about marketing and consumer culture at murketing.com/journal.

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