One Small Thing

Forget 'gut instinct' — this 1 strategy may help you make better decisions

When making a decision, let your uncertainty guide the way.

We’re often told to listen to our “gut instinct” or “first instinct” when making a choice, but that may lead you down the wrong path. Dozens of studies over 70 years have showed going with your first instinct was often not smart, an analysis by the American Psychological Association found: People tended to trust their first instincts more than they should have and they were reluctant to change their minds.

“There’s actually not anything really special about your first instinct,” Justin Couchman, an associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, told TODAY.

“Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong…. But a lot of time, your more thoughtful response after you analyze the problem can actually give you a better answer.”

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What your decision-making style says about you

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What your decision-making style says about you

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Still, people cling to their first instincts because of what psychologists call the endowment effect: You give more value to whatever you own, whether it’s an object or a preference. That first instinct “feels strong and good,” so you’re biased towards it and it’s hard to change to something more uncertain, Couchman said.

But after studying how students performed on a multiple-choice test, he found those who monitored their uncertainty in real time had an edge over the others. Simply jotting down their confidence level for each answer in the margin “was an excellent predictor of whether they made the correct decision and thus whether or not they should change their response,” he wrote in The Conversation.

Here are Couchman’s tips for real-life scenarios:

Use ‘metacognition’

The students in his study used metacognition, or “thinking about thinking” — the ability to monitor your own mental state and then use that information to change your behavior, Couchman said.

He recommended everyone practice this skill for the ultimate decision making. When faced with a choice, notice your gut reaction, but also write down your level of uncertainty in the moment — perhaps on a scale of 1 to 5. Then, when thinking about it later, look back to your rating. If there’s a big disconnect with your gut instinct, that’s a red flag, Couchman said.

If you have to decide whether to accept a job offer, for example, jot down your level of uncertainty about the position right after the interview. If you initially loved the new opportunity, but you come out of the meeting feeling doubtful, that’s a sign you should think about that decision more.

Realize that ‘uncertainty leads to the truth’

When making a decision, uncertainty feels terrible, but it’s a very good sign you’re knowledgeable and weighing all the factors, Couchman said. You can take comfort in knowing you’ll make a better decision than someone who comes into it foolishly and believes it’s an easy choice. Incompetent people are often unaware of their incompetence, so they don't feel uncertainty much, according to the Dunning–Kruger effect in psychology.

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Too many decisions? Tips to tackle them

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Too many decisions? Tips to tackle them

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Gauge your uncertainty in real time

People tend to make the quickest, easiest decision to avoid experiencing uncertainty and worry. But realize your first “gut instinct” is based on all sorts of biases.

Instead, learn to embrace the uncertainty and keep track of it in the moment. It'll let you know whether you need to revisit and revise your decision.

Do a ‘pre-mortem’

When making a decision, people tend to pay special attention to all the reasons why it will work for them. When buying a house, for example, they’ll focus on the nice neighborhood, good price and impressive school district. “It’s the normal thing to do: You take the information and build a narrative why it’s good,” Couchman said.

Instead, take the time to think of an opposite narrative, he advised. Do a pre-mortem and imagine it’s a year in the future and this decision turned out to be a disaster. Think about all the reasons why that may be. “That will force you to critically think about all the things that could be bad,” Couchman noted. “It’ll probably increase your uncertainty somewhat, but then you’re more likely to spot an actual problem.”

Or, if there’s not anything that’s too terrible you can imagine, then it’s probably a good decision, he said.

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