Gut Instinct: Is it Real?

As I shook his hand, the hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end.

He was a respected member of the community: an elected school board trustee who had served intermittently for eight years.  He was visiting various civic groups to promote a school bond.  The wife of a city council member walked him through the crowded room and introduced him to an array of political activists where he seemed well-received.  In my growing sense of unease, I remarked to another woman, “There’s something creepy about that guy.”  She expressed surprise and said that he seemed nice enough.

A month or so later, the same man was arrested and charged with prostitution and trading legal services for sex.  He resigned from the school board in disgrace and soon disappeared from the public eye.

So what was it that made me dislike him so much at that first meeting?  Gut instinct?  Intuition?

Although an imperfect metric, the kinds of nonverbal cues we receive during a face-to-face meeting often can tell us much more than a resume or a campaign mailer.

According to some scientists, what we call intuition or gut instinct, can be explained by the presence of non-verbal clues.  We often subconsciously read body language, tone of voice, and even possibly biochemical odors that warn us about a situation or person.

Not everyone experiences these strong gut feelings, and studies indicate that women are more likely than men to report intuitive events.  Also, some researchers note that while intuition can alert us to danger, certain experiences can suppress our intuitive abilities.

“A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful parents or guardians can create excessive self-doubt, irrational fear, or a clouded thought process, making it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from actual gut intuition. Overwhelming stimuli can also make it difficult for a person to see the decision in front of them with clarity.”*

Unfortunately, some activists would like to intentionally suppress any reliance on intuition or gut instinct.  When an employment recruiter on a jobs-oriented social media site recently posted about how much she learns from in-person meetings with potential clients, a few discussion participants took issue with her for what they interpreted as bias, and one man wrote, “Intuition is driven by confirmation bias and isn’t real…”  (emphasis added.)

Some comments in the ensuing thread made valid points; nervousness in an interview could cause “quirky” behavior that does not necessarily predict success or failure in certain jobs.  Another observed that sometimes our gut instincts or first impressions can be wrong, and anyone responsible for hiring should rely heavily on hard data like resumes and references.  Of course a good human resource manager would have already screened potential candidates via hard data prior to any face-to face meeting.  And all employers should strenuously reject any tendencies towards racial or gender bias in hiring decisions.

Although an over-reliance on gut instinct can be problematic, complete rejection of intuition is a dangerous attitude.  In addition to scientific evidence regarding various non-verbal cues, the great metaphysical traditions refer to the power of “discernment,” an ability to differentiate between good and evil on a spiritual level.  Whether materially or metaphysically based, ignoring gut instincts could be detrimental to our safety, health, and well-being. So when evaluating another person either for hire or any other relationship where trust is paramount, our intuitive senses can be a useful tool in our decision-making toolbox.

While admittedly I have a preference for hard data and statistics, my experience with the aforementioned school board trustee taught me that sometimes our intuition has an urgent message that would be foolhardy to ignore.


*Olson, S. (2015, March 12). Your Gut Feeling Is Way More Than Just A Feeling: The Science Of Intuition. Retrieved March 15, 2018, from

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