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Op-Ed

'Gutsy — but not always right

American politicians who go with their gut instincts aren't doing the hard work.

November 13, 2011|By Jack Schneider

It's gut-check season in American politics.

For the next 12 months, candidates will stake out their positions on topics ranging from farm subsidies to foreign policy. And as they do, they will play up their differences, hurl invective and underscore the sagacity of their own proposals. Whatever their views, though, they will frequently cite an unlikely source of wisdom: their guts.

Consider this exchange during Herman Cain's recent appearance on CNN. After the show's host, Piers Morgan, questioned the presidential candidate's assertion that being gay is "a personal choice," Cain came back with a challenge:

"What does science show?" Cain asked. "Show me evidence other than opinion and you might cause me to reconsider that."

"My gut instinct, Herman, tells me that it has to be a natural thing," Morgan responded.

Having only moments earlier implied a respect for evidence, Cain turned to his waistline to justify his position, concluding: "So, it's your gut instinct versus my gut instincts."

Going with the gut plays well these days. Sarah Palin made a name for herself by extolling the virtues of naivete and gut instinct, and Michele Bachmann has claimed a gender advantage by asserting that "women feel it in our gut and in our heart." Those who are perceived as favoring analysis over impulse, in turn, are routinely slammed for their wonky indecisiveness. Conservative radio host Doug Urbanski went after Mitt Romney for lacking a gut instinct. And Rolling Stone's coverage of a September GOP debate went so far as to pit Rick "the Gut" Perry against Mitt "the Brain" Romney.

When, one has to wonder, did so much knowledge move to the gut? When did instinct begin to trump argument?

Talk of gut instincts and gut reactions dates back to the mid-20th century, before which it didn't play much of a role in American life, or at least not a particularly positive one. Back in the 1960s, going with one's gut was foolhardy — implying an imprudent disregard for reason. Someone acting on gut had more brawn than brains, more heart than sense. In the last several decades, the use of such phrases has skyrocketed by upward of 2,500% according to word tracking tools like Google's Ngram viewer. And it isn't just that we talk more about our guts; it's that we talk about listening to them. We have begun seeing our guts the way the ancients viewed oracles — as sources capable of revealing profound truth.

Cognitive science experiments have suggested that there are some circumstances in which people make objectively better judgments when they don't think carefully. In a study done in 2007, for instance, researchers found that quick decisions made by subjects given the task of identifying and decoding symbols were better than conclusions produced by extensive consideration. And taking the phrase "gut instincts" quite literally, scientists have even found a network of neurons lining the stomach, nicknaming it our "second brain."

Such research has resonated deeply with a generation of Americans enthralled with easy fixes, and popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell have made a mint by telling us that our unconscious minds can be smarter than our conscious ones. Making great decisions, such boosters suggest, can happen without breaking a mental sweat.

Unfortunately, it isn't so easy. As Michael R. LeGault has written, lying behind " 'snap judgments' are educated impressions formed by years of study, thought and analysis." Without such expertise, University of New South Wales psychologist Ben Newell has shown, unconscious thought is highly susceptible to irrelevant factors, such as how recently information has been seen. Even Gerd Gigerenzer, author of "Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of Unconscious," has observed that intuition can lead to fatally flawed decisions. As he noted, in the year after the attacks of Sept. 11, Americans avoided airports and took to the highways. The result? Highway fatalities increased by roughly 1,500.

Gut instincts do appear to be genuinely useful for some tasks. In yet another study, researchers asked participants to track a series of dots appearing on a computer screen and found that subconscious processes were highly active and effective in determining the direction of movement. Such research, of course, is fascinating and fun to read. But the situations in which we're better off not thinking are interesting in the same way that visual illusions are interesting. They reveal systemic oddities, but they don't prove that the system is broken.

Should government spending be at the center of an economic recovery plan? Should we open domestic oil fields to drilling? Should we allow same-sex couples to marry? These are questions that require careful study and genuine engagement with the American people, not parlor tricks. Politicians who cite gut instincts for their positions are no better than those who "exercise" while sitting in their armchairs; they simply aren't doing the work.

As citizens, then, we have a dual responsibility. The first is to demand explanations, arguments and evidence from our candidates. But perhaps even more important is our obligation to hold ourselves to the same standards. Thinking has always been hard work, and it always will be. But those who take seriously the challenge of democracy engage in that work anyway. They do it because it matters, and because they've got the guts to use their brains.

Jack Schneider is a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton College and the author of "Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools."

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