We all share a kind of super power that quickly helps us decide whether to trust someone, buy that house or leave a situation that doesn’t feel quite right.
Whether you call it gut instinct or intuition, some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs depend on it to steer them in the right direction.
“I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life,” Oprah Winfrey has said.
“I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics,” wrote Virgin Group founder Richard Branson in his memoir. “I tend to make up my mind about people within thirty seconds of meeting them.”
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, advised graduates in his famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005.
Gut instinct and intuition are a real phenomenon — part of an unconscious thought process that suddenly pops up as a feeling, said psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz.
You’ll “just know” something is wrong or the person you just met isn’t trustworthy. Or perhaps making a certain decision feels instantly right, even though you haven’t thought about it much.
“It is often informed by past experiences,” Saltz explained. “It’s not magical. It is simply not conscious to you, the process, but it is based on information that your brain has gathered from patterns of behavior or how you respond to things over time.”
Listening to that feeling or inner voice can be very useful in some instances, especially if you sense a person or a situation is dangerous, Saltz said. She worries many young people have a tendency to suppress or disregard their gut instinct, choosing to go too far with a romantic partner, for example, because their desire to be in a relationship overrides their instinct urging caution.
How can you turn up the volume on that inner voice? And when should you listen to it? Here are five tips:
1. Get comfortable with asking yourself: What is my gut feeling?
“It is a conscious discussion with yourself about your unconscious,” Saltz said, noting you may not always be happy about what your inner voice is telling you.
“It’s being able to acknowledge that at times, you may have a feeling and you might have a competing wish that doesn’t jibe with that feeling. It’s important to be able to experience both.”
If you think you want to do something, ask yourself how you feel about doing it and consider it legitimate information, she advised.
2. Gut instinct can be particularly useful in some situations
Research has shown people who respond to their intuitive feelings when buying big ticket items, like a car or a house, are usually happier with the purchase in the long run, Saltz said.
Your gut can be very valuable when it comes to big emotionally-based decisions, like marriage. If you strongly feel your partner is “the one for me,” that’s something worth paying attention to, she added.
Intuition also plays a role in first impressions, especially if you feel someone is creepy or poses a threat.
“Intuition is always right in at least two important ways,” writes Gavin de Becker, author of “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence.” “It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart.”
3. Keep a journal
“Writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper—even if you ‘think’ you have little to say — helps the nonconscious mind open up,” advises Francis P. Cholle, author of “The Intuitive Compass: Why the Best Decisions Balance Reason and Instinct.”
4. Silence your inner critic
Cholle also recommends allowing yourself to listen to your inner voice without judgment. “Allow the inner dialogues to happen without fear or ridicule,” he writes.
If your inner voice tells you you're in danger, don't second-guess yourself, don't worry about offending anybody and don't worry about being polite. "We need to put politeness aside and think about ourselves," said former Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras on TODAY.
5. Realize it’s possible for gut instinct to be wrong
Overall, your gut instinct can help you make wise decisions, but it's just one data point to consider.
“Is it always correct? No, you’re not a computer,” Saltz said.
Some people who make quick decisions, claiming to always go with their gut, may simply not be able to tolerate the anxiety of ambivalence, she noted.
This article was originally published in April 2016.