In general, how correct are people's first instincts?

I am wondering if any studies have been done on how correct people’s “first instincts,” “gut feelings,” or “initial impressions” are, in general.

I realize it probably varies situationally. I am more interested in the overall statistical picture.

You might try reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, which is all about this issue. Gladwell has been criticized (over this book and other things he has written) for sacrificing scientific accuracy and even-handedness in favor of telling a good story that will sell (and tell people something they like to hear), but his work does have the advantage of being very readable, and provided you are careful not to swallow his conclusions whole, it should give you a good place to start from in exploring the issue.

I don’t think you are going to find any “overall statistical picture” about this, however, for the very reason you yourself give. It is too variable situationally, and generally will be very hard to pin down (except in special, controlled circumstances) just what someone’s first gut instinct was.

Depending on how educated and trained you are the topic it can go either way, I’d say it’s 50/50.

However, there is a lot of “evidence” that concludes that my instinct was right in thinking it was right, if I want my gut feeling to be right.
Cite for it working one, two,

Cite for it not working one, two, three

… take you pick

OK but what was your initial reaction to the OP?

There is a lot of confirmation bias out there. Please tend to remember the times their first impressions were right, and forget the times when they weren’t.

I can’t help asking, first instincts ABOUT WHAT?

We get gut feelings all the time, and sometimes we’re wise to listen to them. But other times (to steal John Cusack’s great line from High Fidelity), our guts have s**t for brains.

So, whenever a gut feeling tells you something, you’d do well to ask yourself… WHY do I feel this way? Based on experience, or based on nothing? Does my gut feeling fly completely in the face of logic, or does logic seem to confirm my first impression?

And how important are the stakes? How bad could things get if your gut is wrong?

The reason we have instincts in the first place is that they’re usually correct, in the majority of situations we’re likely to actually encounter. Anyone whose instincts weren’t usually correct would quickly find themselves outcompeted in one way or another by those who were, and so wouldn’t pass down those incorrect instincts to descendants.

My instinct tells me to recommend a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow

While that might be true in the natural world, I’m not sure it’s so true in modern life. In the natural world, sheep look like sheep and wolves look like wolves. In our educated and civilized times, it’s quite easy for a wolf to put on sheep’s clothing.

And I think that’s why we have to come back to question the OP on what we’re judging with first impressions. If we’re judging a “natural” situation in which no one is trying to fool you, I think your guts are probably right most of the time. But your guts can be easily fooled, and even the rational parts of your mind can go a long time forcing square pegs into round holes because it doesn’t want to admit that the pegs were really square all along.

This is very true. I just finished reading the book “Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior” by Leonard Mlodinow, and it was pretty interesting. Your unconscious mind can be correct at times, but can also easily be led astray. In one study, people gave better tips to waitstaff at a restaurant when the weather was better out. Another study looked at trading patterns of stock markets from all over the world. Trading patterns were also different based on if it was a day with good weather or bad weather.

The book mentions several studies where people are influenced by things without realizing it. In one, fake political flyers were made, with one having a more physically attractive candidate than the other. Subjects would see both flyers and say who they preferred. The flyers explained equally clearly all the positions for both candidates. To make sure that the results weren’t from the positions of the candidates, half the subjects would see the more attractive candidate with Party A and those political positions, and half of the subjects would see the attractive candidate with Party B and those political positions. The attractive candidate always was preferred by people.

In another study, the participants looked at two resumes for candidates for the job of police chief. One resume was of someone streetwise but with poor administrative skills and little education. The other resume was of someone very well educated but with little street smarts. In half the cases, the male candidate had the street smart resume and the female candidate had the book smart resume, and in half the cases it was reversed. When participants had the street smart male resume, they figured that street smarts were more important for a police chief and picked the male candidate, but when other participants had the two resumes and the male one was the book smarts, they decided that street smarts weren’t as important as book smarts, and picked the male candidate. Since police chief is a more traditionally male position, the participants were likely unknowingly influenced by that knowledge, and picked the male candidate no matter what.

In all these cases, people had a choice to make: how much of a tip to leave for their waitress, how much to buy and trade in the stock market, what political candidate to choose, what job applicant to choose. In all these cases, they probably had some rational thoughts behind their choice that they could explain to you, and some gut instinct thoughts about how it just feels right to do whatever they do. But in each case they were also unknowingly influenced by factors that they didn’t think would influence them.

I don’t know if I’m explaining things well. But it’s an interesting book and I’d recommend it.

Oh, sure, we make a very large number of bad decisions based on our instincts. But that’s just because we make such an extremely large number of decisions every day. We still make many more correct instinctive decisions than incorrect ones.

Put it this way: When was the last time you got hit by a car while crossing the street? Your ability to avoid getting hit is a testament to a lot of good decisions that you probably never even think about.

I’d second that. One may philosophise about the accuracy of people’s first instincts when it comes to the big life choices - should I take up this or that job, should I marry that person, should I buy a house, and so on. But people make lots of small decisions everyday, most of them being based on instincts, and they usually turn out right. When I feel thirsty, I have a drink because an instinct tells me to do so. When I put my hand on a hot stovetop and feel the heat, I immediately retract it because an instinct tells me to do so. In situations like these, it’s usually a very good idea to follow the instincts.

But is it right to assume that instincts which result in sexual reproduction have much if anything to do with correct decision making? How are we going to define correct anyway?

I have no statistics to offer but there are several books by criminal profilers, notably John Douglas and Mary Ellen O’Toole, that deal with first impressions and gut instincts as they pertain to crime and such issues as how to avoid being the victim of a crime and what to look for. I can’t remember the titles but the authors can easily be googled by name, their books found on Amazon by looking for them by author.

This is, I know, a general answer, but these books deal with such seemingly superficial issues as charm. The authors suggest,–and this is consistent with my personal experience generally, not crime specifically-- that the best way to know “what’s up” is to think “globally”, which is to say analyze the situation, then one’s “gut feelings”, and try to come to an assessment that logically combines reason and emotion.

In cases in which trying to determine where another person is coming from, so to speak, keep in mind that one’s “gut” can be maniplulated by an unscrupulous person who makes it his business to obtain a certain response from other people. To put the matter another way (and I’m being deliberately glib here), there are two kinds of prople in the world, the “manipulators”, or operators, if you will, and the straight shooters, those with little or no guile or cunning.

What I’m addressing here is person-to-person situations, not job applications and such, though I find the criminal profiler approach (sadly) to be broadly valid when it comes to specifically trying to understand what other people are up to in any given situation. Overall, “first impressions” and “gut instincts” are, --again, based on my experience–a tricky business. Have you ever instantly disliked by another person, never been able to get on their on their “good side”? If you’re a decent sort this can be unsettling (not to mention unlucky, as in a work situation)

Many people I’ve taken an instant dislike to have often been, upon reflection, similar to someone I’ve had a hard time with in the past, and looking back on it, my emotions, while valid and true to my life and experience, were sometimes unfair to someone else. The “gut business” is a two way street. I try to keep this in mind as well.

I hope this response has been of some use.

John B.

The Monty Hall problem is a good illustration of how “gut instincts” can be demonstrably wrong.

Three problems:

1)That’s not instinct, that’s training. Young children take an awful long time and repeated instruction to learn how to cross a street safely. Adults who have never been exposed to heavy traffic have to learn how to negotiate city streets. If you consider the automatic application of deliberate training to be instinct, then the ability to multiply numbers is also instinctive, a position that nobody would endorse.

  1. Even if it is instinctive, the fact that people avoid being hit by cars is not evidence of correct instinct. We can’t evaluate whether a treatment just by looking at an absence of negative results. We have to look at the false positives as well. Almost any system at all could result in zero car accidents. A system that prevents someone from crossing the street at all will have better success than instinct, for example. That doesn’t make it correct. The correctness of instinct needs to be evaluated by the ratio of positives to false positives. We need to know how often people have erroneously opted not to cross the street when it would be perfectly safe to know how often instinct is wrong. We don’t have that information, so we have no idea how correct instinct is. All we know is that instinct prevents sometimes accidents and sometimes needlessly prevents people from moving.

  2. Even if we accept that specifically trained behaviour of this sort is instinctive and that it is evidence of successful instinctive behaviour, all you’ve done is selected an example that favours one side of the debate. A KKK member instinctively knows that black people are criminals and Jews are greedy. She makes a hundreds of evaluations to that effect every day. She makes far more evaluations about racial traits than she ever makes about crossing the street. And she is obviously wrong most of the time. So instinct is therefore wrong far often than it’s right, even if every single time she crosses the street instinct is right.

To evaluate ho often instinct is correct, we need to know how often it is used and how often it is correct when used. there will undoubtedly be cases where instinct will be mostly correct, but just as surely there will be cases where it is mostly wrong. We can easily find examples of either extreme, but using those extremes as an example tells us nothing.

This assumes that evolution always finds the optimal solution, and that the environment we live in now is the environment we evolved in. Neither is correct.

Even if my instincts are incorrect 95% of the time, I will still outcompete somebody whose instincts are incorrect 99% of the time. If 95% is the best that has been able to evolve with the genetic material available, then instinct will be wrong 95% of the time. Evolution can only select the optimal form what is available. It can’t produce perfection if perfection isn’t an option to start with.

And the world we live in now is radically different from the world we evolved in. For a hunter-gatherer, being wary of anybody from a different culture and believing they are devious, cunning, murderous thieves and less worthy than members of your own tribe is a real good instinctive trait. The nature of HG interactions meant that it was largely true and increased tribal bonding and survival. The fact that this tribal instinct is deeply ingrained in humanity does not mean that it is true or offers a survival advantage in the modern world.

Similarly, I instinctively want to eat foods that are packed with salt, sugar and fat. That was a survival advantage until a hundred years ago. It’s completely wrong now. The reason we have that instinct is not because it’s usually correct. It’s provably incorrect for 95% of westerners. The reason we have that instinct is because it was *once *correct. The mere existence of the instinct doesn’t allow us to evaluate whether it is correct today.

I suspect, though can’t prove, that most of out instincts are utterly inappropriate or at least sub-optimal for the modern world. We’ve been passed down a whole parcel of incorrect instincts by our parents and grandparents.

I second this. It will give you a very good idea as to how reliable or unreliable gut instincts are, under what conditions, and why.
Excellent read.