When Research Better than Gut Instinct In Decision Making

Gut instincts are great for crises, but innovative decision making calls for research.

Army man doing sit-ups.No one ever references the guy who followed his gut instinct and failed. When talking about trusting your gut instinct, we all talk about the success stories: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Einstein – what is it about intuition that makes us all so confident in using it?

A recent report by SurveyMonkey found that 72% of SME leaders make decisions based purely on gut instinct, to the exclusion of qualitative or quantitative insights. That number is in line with the PwC survey of 1,100 senior business officials that showed only 23% of them preferred to look at data and analytics.

Should You “Go With Your Gut”?

The ‘gut instinct’ or intuition has fascinated researchers over the last few decades, many trying to determine whether it is an essential tool for fast decision-making or if it’s just an error-ridden excuse to explain a choice.

Research by Kahneman and Klein (2009) showed that intuition does work – in the right situations. It works when experts are faced with a situation that fits or contradicts a pattern they have come across before. This method of decision-making is an evolutionary adaptation known as a heuristic: a mental shortcut that reduces the cognitive load of making a decision.

It’s great for facing life or death decisions, but can lead to errors and biases in judgement – especially in business.

3 Reasons People Choose Their Intuition

There are many reasons why people tend to use their intuition in decision making:

  1. Selection. We tend to favor business leaders who can make quick decisions – whether it is a better one or not. Their decisiveness appears to signal confidence. People who are thoughtful and methodical decision-makers are often perceived as poor leaders, which means those who get to the top are more likely to rely on gut instinct.
  2. They don’t trust research. Unfortunately, market research has failed a lot of businesses and some leaders prefer to put their decisions back into their own hands.
  3. Confirmation bias. We are drawn to evidence that reaffirms our beliefs and tend to reject evidence that doesn’t align with our view of the world. When leaders see something that fits with an experience they’ve had before, there’s a strong pull to do (or not do) it again.

When Should You Use Research?

Business leaders should factor insights into their decisions. Quick judgements are not always superior to analyzed judgements, especially in a situation where you have less expertise. Here are 4 times you should use research as part of your decision-making process:

1. Be a leader, not a follower

If you want to be perceived as a market leader then you cannot rely on your previous experience to inform your intuition. Speaking to consumers and looking for patterns in what they want will put you ahead of your competitors.

2. Success is in the details

In business, small distinctions can be the difference between success and failure. Your gut instinct doesn’t synthesize complexity – it ignores it, filtering out aspects that make a problem new or different. If you’re trying to break into a new market or assess a potentially disruptive business, you can’t look at it through the lens of what you’ve done before.

3. You have knowledge gaps

Our brain tricks us into thinking we know more than we actually do. Behavioral science has shown that the more experience people have the more complacent they become about their ability to understand the past and predict the future.

4. Battling departments

Research is useful when you have different departments with opposing “intuition” about how a project should be completed. A researcher brings the crucial, neutral voice into the boardroom with data and insights that are hard to ignore.

Photo by The U.S. Army.

BuyerSynthesis brings consumer insights to food, culture and clothing brands and their agencies to refine product strategy, user experience and communications.

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