Go with your gut, but check with your head, says U of S decision-making expert

Should you go with your gut, or with your head?

For Valerie Thompson University of Saskatchewan professor of cognitive psychology, it depends: do you need a quick answer, or a correct answer?

"We have a limited capacity for thinking," she said, explaining that the conscious mind exists at a bottleneck between the vast amount of information pouring in from the outside world and the enormous amount of data stored in long-term memory.

"You can hold more items of information and do less with them, or you can think a lot about one or two items," she said. "So you trade off capacity versus power."

People use short cuts to make up for this, some of which are well-known.

"Marketing specialists have been working for years to modify your behavior with regard to what you put in your shopping cart, and they're very, very good at it," Thompson said.

Thompson explained gut decisions are common in the grocery store, where myriad choices force people to use a variety of strategies to get the shopping done in a reasonable amount of time. Familiarity-buying what you've bought before or have seen in an advertisement-is one. Attractive packaging and words like natural, quality and organic also provide decision-making shortcuts.

"Cues like familiarity, or colour, position-next to the checkout-these are perhaps not the best cues to use," Thompson said. "But they're easy to use, so we are really used to employing them to simplify the decisions we make."

Generally, the larger and more important the decision, the more likely we are to slow down and give it the benefit of analytical thought. But not always.

"Think about a decision to buy a house," Thompson said. "Now, this is the biggest investment somebody's going to make. There's nothing else that you will spend as much money on. But a lot of the thinking is rationalization after the fact-you just love the house."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's a quick way to eliminate options that obviously won't work. But before signing on the dotted line, Thompson advises that the buyer engage analytical reasoning to answer questions such as proximity to schools, commute times and other practical matters.

Another mental short cut that can be cause problems is prior belief. Thompson explained people pay more attention, and give more weight, to evidence and arguments that support their beliefs.

"People are actually very good at preserving belief systems," she said. "They will go a long way to defend them, even in the face of contradictory evidence."

For Thompson, it comes down to being aware of our mental limits and short cuts and asking some questions when there is "a decision that deserves our rational thinking." Are previous decisions, emotions, or beliefs colouring our judgment?

"We can be well or poorly served by intuitive judgments. The trouble is we're not very good at telling the two situations apart."


For more information, contact:


Jennifer Thoma

Media Relations

University of Saskatchewan


Share this story