Decision Making Blog #7: Should we ‘go with the gut’? Yes, but…

Number 7 in our series of blogs on decision making by the Midlands Decision Support Network

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Fraser Battye, the Strategy Unit

I’m not sure there’s a superlative strong enough to describe ‘The Matter With Things’ by Iain McGilchrist. The most immediately breath-taking thing about this book is its scale. The hardback version is as big as it is beautiful. It comes as two volumes and weighs in at 1,579 pages – 182 of which are bibliography.  

But the truly stunning thing is its breadth and depth. McGilchrist is a true polymath, and this is a work of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and physics (that’s without leaving ‘P’). So this enveloping, rich, vibrant, perspective-altering work can be seen both as a very long book – and as a condensation of several wings of the British Library.  

I didn’t read it for professional interest, but – because it is so broad – I was delighted to see McGilchrist touch upon decision making. And he does so in characteristically illuminating and refreshing ways.  

One of McGilchrist’s overall aims is to reclaim a version of humanity that he sees as undervalued*. A version that is implicit, metaphorical, embodied, unconscious, associative and inarticulable in a world that, he claims, overvalues the explicit, plain, abstracted, conscious, linear and articulate.  

The implications for decision making follow from this: McGilchrist thinks we should trust our intuitions and instincts more. He rejects the view – prevalent in much decision science – that humans are irrational, sub-optimal versions of machines; and he worries about developments based on that view (see AI).  

The book layers up a careful argument. It elaborates a body of research, illustrating general conclusions with some wonderful case studies – two of which really struck me.  

The first was Franck Mourier. He was a racehorse trainer whose academic background led him to use highly technical modelling techniques to make decisions. But, when he retired from training and began work as a tipster, he found success in radically different methods.  

Mourier discovered that he could beat the prevailing odds by going with his gut feel**. He would watch horses for just a few minutes as they warmed up for a race, quickly list likely winners and text these to a team of people placing bets. He persistently beat the betting markets. What’s more, trial and error showed that Mourier was more successful if he didn’t have to justify or reason about his choices, but just let his unconscious do the work.   

The second case was motorbike racing. Specifically, the Isle of Man TT, where riders rip around the island’s roads at horrifying, and occasionally lethal, speeds. The research on their decision making is fascinating. As with Mourier, performance was hampered by conscious effort or focus. Indeed, some winning times were set by riders who had given up and eased off…only to be surprised at the result. Their decisions were better if ‘they’ switched off and went with the flow.  

These stories accord nicely with research by a well-known advocate of intuitive – or ‘naturalistic’ – decision making: Gary Klein. His ‘Sources of Power’ book is filled with accounts of expert firefighters, nurses, soldiers and others who demonstrated greater success by following flashes of intuition than any more explicit or stepwise methods. Adding to Klein’s arguments, McGilchrist notes that expert intuition (he also mentions nurses) can even decay with the use of decision aids and guidelines.   

So is it time to give up on careful and deliberative modes of decision making? Is it out with the spreadsheet and in with the gut? Should decision makers cast off their Decision Quality Chains and wait for their nature to take its course?   

This is tempting stuff. Maybe, deep down, we all want to believe that leaders have a special gift. The business bookshelves groan under the weight of success stories where people backed their feelings and beat the odds. Surely not all of this is survivorship bias 

And there will be many senior leaders in the NHS who sincerely believe that they have a feel for strategic decisions that should trump any analysis. They might trust their nose over any numbers.    

Are they right?  

To borrow a favourite phrase of McGilchrist’s, I’d say ‘Yes, but…’ 

The crucial factors seem to be experience, expertise and the nature of the decision making environment.  

Intuition grows and functions through pattern recognition. Franck Mourier absorbed (learnt) patterns associated with winning racehorses. And Klein’s firefighters were alerted to problems when the observed patterns of a fire jarred with expected ones: often in ways they could not articulate or explain.  

In each of these cases, the decision making environment exhibited enough regularity – and enough clear, timely feedback – for such patterns to be built up over years. And years do seem to count: Klein found that firefighters were least dangerous if they were very inexperienced (because they were risk averse) or very experienced (and so skilled), with most risk in the intervening years.    

I see strong disanalogies between firefighting, nursing, racehorse training and TT racing and strategic decision making in health and social care. By definition, strategic decisions are infrequent and uncertain. They also come with feedback that is typically late and ambiguous.  

It is hard to acquire intuitive skill in this environment. In ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman notes that:  

“…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback…”  

Strategic decision makers don’t live in this environment. And while experience might help it does not confer magic powers.  

Yet I want to resist a conclusion that is ‘either-or’. Strategic decision making is not either gut or spreadsheet. Decision makers need to understand their instincts, and they need to examine them alongside analysis and evidence.  

Intuition then has a final, and perhaps decisive, role. At the end of deliberation, and at the point of making a choice, decision makers must ask themselves how they feel about it. Only their gut can answer that.  


* The space needed to summarise McGilchrist’s arguments would dwarf the polite length of a blog (and I’m already on thin ice there). In any case they merit the proper exploration that the length of his work allows. But, in short, his thesis begins in psychiatry and neuroscience and concerns the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. His RSA ‘Animate’ is a nice starting point: here. McGilchrist explored the implications of this thesis for the evolution of Western civilisation in ‘The Master and His Emissary’, before examining implications at a more fundamental and philosophical level in ‘The Matter with Things’ (introduction here).  

** In looking at the case for ‘going with the gut’ McGilchrist notes that the human gut has more neurones than a dog’s brain.