Head, Heart or Gut...Which One's Right?

There are three ways of looking at a life decision: with our head, our heart, or our gut. This applies to just about any kind of decision: selecting material goods, deciding whether or not to accept a job offer and even whether or not to propose. 

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Which one’s our best guide?

Before getting to the punch line, here's a look at each one:

Thinking with Our Head

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Our head thinks about the problem in a logical fashion. We weigh the pros and cons and evaluate them using a combination of qualitative and quantitative criteria. Many of us go through this process by using one of many potential “pros and cons” lists. Some of us even use weightings and weighted average scores (you “spreadsheet jockeys” know who you are). Yes. Very logical indeed. An economist would be proud.

Example 1: You do a cost/benefit analysis when deciding how you’ll finance your house. You’ve selected three potential providers and you analyze the cost of each of the options, possibly along with the financial institution’s track record of stability and professionalism.

Example 2: You select an online retailer based on price, quality of service, average review rating, convenience and any other criteria important to you and, once you start using that retailer you choose to not question your choice because you don’t think the time and effort to do so are worth the investment.

Thinking with Our Heart

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Our heart considers a problem based on our emotions. It’s irrational. It’s passionate. And feelings, strong as they might be, are fleeting. How we feel at any given moment affects our personality, our thoughts and our actions. We’re fated to answer questions differently, offer different opinions, and make different decisions depending on our emotional state.

Some people would say that thinking with our heart is similar to using our “lizard brain”. It feels right in the moment but in hindsight, the emotional choices we make are often some we regret. They're usually defined by the “I wants” versus the “I know I need” states of being. The decision will feel good in the moment and, at the time of the decision, the moment seems to be all that matters. If you want to see emotional decision-making, all you need is to spend an hour with a toddler.

Example 1: You date someone who's exciting and different because it’s fun and it makes you feel adventurous, despite knowing deep down that it’s not meant to last and that you may get hurt in the end if you let it get serious. Still, you convince yourself you don’t care.

Example 2: You shop for a car and, despite starting out shopping based on a specific list of needs and wants, that little red convertible featured in the dealer's show room keeps calling to you and, against your better judgement, you buy it.

Thinking with Our Gut


Our gut is our intuitive source. Our gut sends us implicit messages about what we think about something but it offers very little explanation compared to our head and our heart.

It’s cryptic. It’s secretive. It’s that feeling in the pit of our stomach, that little voice that tells us something feels right or feels wrong. It has an amazing ability to foreshadow how we’ll feel about a decision over the long term. And, though it might offer a low-level nag that you need to consider something, it’s not as pushy as the brain or the heart. That said, its position on something is usually lasting.

[O]ur world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way...We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that - sometimes - we’re better off that way.
— Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

This feeling is served up by our subconscious. Unlike our conscious mind, it’s a part of us that we can’t analyze or alter and therefore can’t fully understand or appreciate.

We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.
— Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

The trouble with explaining a decision we make by following our gut is that, well, it’s impossible.  Sure, we can rationalize it, but it’s hard to put our finger on the real nature of it. If we’re not aware of exactly why we made a decision, we’ll backfill our story and convince ourselves that we made the decision quite rationally. When we do that, we’re trying to kid ourselves and others and we might not even realize we’re doing it.

Example: You can’t explain why but you decide that you should go with option C, despite your quantitative/qualitative analysis showing that option B is the “right” choice. “Something tells you” that you need to go with “C”. Of course, if you’re in a business settling, you’ll come up with a logical “why”, regardless of whether it’s the real reason for your choice or not…you may not even know because it’s just a gut feeling.

Which one has it right?

Our gut. Hands down. 

...I believe you know, deep in your belly, what you have to do and what’s best for you. The hurdle you have to get over is the rest of your body, your head and your heart, which are actively telling you to ignore your gut.
— p. 22, Leap by Tess Vigeland

Now I’m not going to say that our heads or our hearts don’t have their place. They most certainly do. We should think about problems and opportunities in a logical and emotive way, as long as we understand their limitations and allow ourselves to do a “gut check” before making the final decision. Of course, this is most important when the decision is a significant and life-altering one.

[I]f there’s a secret to getting happy, it’s this: be true to yourself.
— Carl Richards, p. xiv of The Behavior Gap

How often have we had that feeling in our gut that something “wasn’t right”? That what we were choosing wasn't in our best interest but we couldn’t explain why? How often have we thought in retrospect that we “should have listened”?

Every time I haven’t listened to my gut, I’ve regretted it:

  • Wrong job
  • Wrong boyfriend
  • Wrong car
  • Wrong trip
  • Wrong investment
  • Wrong financing
  • Buyer’s remorse on consumer goods
  • Maintaining a toxic friendship
  • …and the list goes on.

Luckily, the list of wins based on listening to it more attentively is much longer and I’m getting better at not second-guessing what it’s telling me. I also don’t feel that I have to justify a decision that “feels right” to myself and others as much as I used to. If I’m smart about it, I’ll keep letting my gut decide…that is as long as my lizard brain doesn’t get in the way.

If you've read this far, here's an interesting tidbit: I had first written this post back on June 10th, 2015. I sat on this one, as I have with many other posts (that's a story for another day), because it really hits close to home. What prompted me to finally post it? Earlier this week, I was reading Tess Vigeland's book "Leap" and in it, at the bottom of p. 22 to be exact, she states the same belief (see her quote earlier in this post). Interestingly enough, Tess's book is the first work in which I've heard from another person sharing this same belief about the foundation of successful decision making, and using similar terms. This happy discovery served as both a reminder of my draft and a prompt to finally hit "publish".

Also, the images I used are a reasonable example of the extent of my limited abilities in the visual arts. Call it inspiration from reading a few of Carl Richard's books: anything can look ok when all you use is a piece of paper, a sharpie and simple lines...or at least that's what I'd like to believe. I may put sharpie to paper again in the future, much the chagrin of some readers, I'm sure.

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