People tend to go with their gut feeling, even if it’s a bad idea

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Researchers say options that are more likely to succeed can be discarded

Taking all the facts into account is important when it comes to making a big decision, but a recent study shows that many people prefer to follow their gut -- even when another choice is more likely to succeed. 

Researchers from The Ohio State University found that choosing based on habits, gut feelings, or by what happened the last time the choice came up is very common. The findings contradict the belief that people usually make the wrong choice because they don’t know any better. 

"In our study, people knew what worked most often. They just didn't use that knowledge,” said study co-author Ian Krajbich. "There's this tension between doing what you should do, at least from a statistical perspective, versus doing what worked out well recently.”

Going with a gut feeling

The researchers came to their conclusions after studying participants who played a computer game. Players were asked to identify patterns within the game and make a decision that gave them the best outcome. While following the pattern led to success more often, there was still a 10-40 percent chance that it would not give the best outcome. 

The researchers said that 56 of the 57 participants were able to discern the pattern in the game to make the decision that gave them the highest chance of success. However, only about 20 percent of players chose to consistently go with that choice after it failed them; instead, many of them deviated and made choices based on their gut feelings. 

The researchers believe that participants decided to go with their gut feelings when making in-game decisions because picking the best pattern only led to a slightly higher chance of success. Krajbich says the study findings highlight how decisions can turn out in real life. People can learn what choices lead to the best outcomes, but he says that putting that knowledge into practice can be difficult.

"It can be hard to judge whether you made a good or bad decision based just on the outcome. We can make a good decision and just get unlucky and have a bad outcome. Or we can make a bad decision and get lucky and have a good outcome," Krajbich said.

True for medical emergencies

The findings from this study parallel results from another study published earlier this year about gut feelings and medical emergencies.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Arlington found that consumers tend to make gut-reaction choices based on their emotions, opinions, and anecdotal stories instead of established facts when it comes to medical care. The team noted that the results are especially worrying in light of the current COVID-19 health crisis.

“[People] are especially dismissive of facts if the incident is something they personally experienced. Specifically, we show that when an issue is health-related, personally relevant or highly threatening, then decision-making is compromised and people tend to rely on anecdotes,” said researcher Traci Freling. 

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