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Feeling Good about Gut Choices

Can making decisions based on our intuition affect how we ultimately feel about what we choose?

Man looking at two doorsA new paper in Emotion, coauthored by Taly Reich at the Yale School of Management and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto, demonstrates a powerful connection between the use of intuition in our decisions and how we ultimately feel about the outcome. In a series of studies, Reich and Maglio demonstrated that “focusing on feelings in processing decision-relevant information led participants to hold more certain attitudes toward and to advocate more strongly for their chosen options.” This result stems from an integral connection between our feelings about something and our sense that those feelings are connected, in some way, with a “true self.”

The study was relatively straightforward. In the first two of four experiments, Reich and Maglio examined the connection between how people choose a product and how much they believe it represents some aspect of their true selves. For instance, participants were presented with a choice between two comparable DVD players. Some of them were instructed to evaluate the options using “deliberative, rational analysis,” others using “intuitive, gut feeling,” and others still were given no guidance.  They were subsequently asked to what extent the DVD player they chose reflects their true self. “Focusing on feelings,” Reich and Maglio find, “evoked the true self in choice significantly more than did deciding deliberatively or without explicit instructions.” (The second experiment probed this same connection with less overt reference to feelings and rationality.)

From this foundation, Reich and Maglio were able to experimentally confirm two implications. First, people who make decisions based on their feelings harbor greater certainty about those decisions. Second, this certainty can manifest as a stronger willingness to advocate on behalf of one’s choice. This advocacy manifested in participants’ willingness to recommend a restaurant to friends: those who bought a restaurant gift card based on their intuition were more likely to send emails to their friends than those who were asked to consider the choice rationally.

Long considered detrimental to decision-making, feelings and emotion have recently been shown to improve outcomes in a number of contexts. But this growing body of work has focused largely on what people choose “with relatively little consideration for other consequences resulting from how people choose,” write Reich and Maglio. “The present investigation champions reliance on feelings in choice by pinpointing not that it has a role to play (e.g., in enhancing choice accuracy), but why that role matters in seeming to evoke individuals’ inscrutable true selves and cultivating more certain attitudes.”

This is not, of course, to suggest that drawing on gut feelings always leads to better outcomes. Scenarios in which the opposite is true abound. But, under the right circumstances, going with what you feel about something rather than what you think about its specific features can lead to greater certainty after the fact.