Intuition. Sixth sense. That little voice in your head. Whatever you call it, most people rely on that unmistakable feeling of right or wrong that arises when they're faced with a decision.
“Our intuition is a powerful source of guidance [and] can also point our attention to potential threats and opportunities,” said Margie Warrell, master coach and best-selling author of Stop Playing Safe. Research has shown that, rather than magical thinking, gut instinct is rooted in unconscious memories. Accessing those life experiences is what makes it more than just a metaphysical divining rod.
Our experts weighed in on six scenarios when gut instinct may come into play and asked them whether to trust it or seek more guidance:
1. Judging the sincerity of a son- or daughter-in-law
“When reading emotions in faces, especially those of friends and partners, show us a microsecond of an angry or happy face, and we’ll read it accurately,” says David G. Myers, professor of psychology at Hope University. However, if you’re meeting someone for the first time and get an instant negative reaction, it might say more about you than the other person.
Making a swift, emotional judgment about someone is like saying you had a dream about them, and you’re angry because they did something wrong, says Love. “Maybe you don’t feel like you can be yourself around this person or there’s no real connection." Our gut feelings are more of an emotional gauge for us and can project negative emotions onto the other person. (After all, it’s easier to judge someone else than it is to judge ourselves.)
Bottom line: Rely on your gut instinct, but be open to other data points that may prove you wrong, advises Warrell.
2. Deciding to retire
“There’s no wrong or right when it comes to deciding to retire,” says Warrell. But as powerful as gut instinct can be, it shouldn’t be viewed as one-stop shopping, especially for a potentially life-altering decision.
Weighing the risks and benefits – emotional, financial, logistical – shouldn’t fly out the window the moment you’ve got a good feeling about moving out of the daily grind. Instinct most often serves us best when working in concert with rational thought, and “relying solely on a gut feeling can be foolish if we aren’t also doing our homework,” says Warrell.
Bottom line: Run the numbers first and then check in with your instincts, advises Warrell.
3. Moving to be closer to family
“Moving away from your community can be an emotional and financial risk, even if it means being closer to your family. First and foremost, it’s important to research the financial gains and losses of moving before doing a gut check, said Warrell. But if you’ve covered all of your monetary bases and your intuition is still telling you “no,” it’s important to investigate that feeling.
“Your gut feelings are connected to impact memories from life experiences,” says Martha Char Love, author of What’s Behind Your Belly Button?: A Psychological Perspective of the Intelligence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct. Having a negative gut reaction to moving doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea—it means that you’ve been down a similar road before that may not have had a good outcome.
Don’t allow a negative past experience to prevent you from creating a new, better memory, especially if it brings you closer to family. “You have to chase that feeling back to see where it’s [coming from],” says Love. Once you’ve looked at it, you can feel empowered to go forward with your decision.
Bottom line: Smart financial decisions should always be grounded in common sense, advises Warrell. But when it comes to family, it’s important to weigh your options and then go with your gut or, in this case, your heart.
4. Deciding whether to go to the doctor
No matter the case, going to the doctor is always advisable, even if it’s only rooted in an inkling that something is wrong. If you're right, then you’ll find out and can formulate a plan of action with your doctor. If everything checks out okay, then you’ve got your peace of mind back, which is definitely worth the trip. Hypochondriac's note: You may be someone who goes to the doctor too often if you have their office on speed-dial and you list "Googling diseases" as a favorite hobby.
Bottom line: Most people should go to the doctor if they have a feeling that something is wrong.
5. Encountering a stranger you get a bad feeling about
Whether it’s late in the evening or early in the morning, getting that not-quite-right feeling when you encounter a stranger can be disturbing. “You always need to look at your gut feeling and examine it,” says Love.
Our instincts are a collection of memories that we’ve amassed over the years that give us information about the present. So whether it was something the person said, his or her physicality, or even a micro expression that wasn’t perceptible to anyone but you, your instincts are sending you a red flag. If you can’t leave the area immediately, stay alert and keep your guard up. There’s no danger in being prepared.
Bottom line: Trust your gut and don’t take risks, if you don't have to.
6. You think your grandchild has a learning disability
If you’ve been picking up on signs that your grandchild has a learning disability and reveal your suspicions to your son or daughter without being prompted, you run the risk of potentially offending them. However, if you don’t say anything and happen to be right, your grandchild could not only struggle alone but also miss out on help that’s time-sensitive. “You have to look at what you would feel sorry about the most,” said Love. “And you can use your gut for that.”
Bottom line: Weight what’s most important to you and then rely on your intuition.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.