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Universiteit Leiden

In doubt what to decide? Ask your gut!

In doubt what to decide? Ask your gut!

Making the right decision can be very difficult. You may have seen yourself desperately writing down all pros and cons, hoping to come to a decision. However, is this actually the best way to make such a complex decision?

Decision-making is sometimes accompanied by an intense period of considering the pros and cons of that particular decision. Nonetheless, after a decision has been made, you are often not able to tell what the exact reason for this decision was. You probably made this choice, because it simply felt best. Does this mean that writing down and reflecting on pros and cons is not enough, but that the experience of a “gut feeling” is needed to decide correctly?

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

Damasio denied that just rational reasoning will lead people to making a good decision. First of all, it would take far too long to consider all pros and cons of all possible decisions to determine which decision is best. Moreover, to make such a complex decision, you should hold all pros and cons of the possible decision in your memory. Also, don’t forget that your attention needs to be fully focused the whole time! Given the speed with which decisions are usually made and the limited capacity of memory and attention, rationality alone seems insufficient to make the right choice.

As a solution, Damasio proposed the somatic marker hypothesis. He called the gut feeling that people experience before they make a decision “somatic markers”. These markers are obtained from previous experience in the same sort of situation as the somatic marker appears in. Somatic markers are believed to guide attention towards good decisions and away from bad decisions. This results in fewer decision options to consider, which makes the decision-making process more efficient and accurate. However, is the experience of a gut feeling indeed essential for beneficial decision-making?

Support for the gut feeling in decision-making

Patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) show impaired decision-making in real-life, even though their intellectual abilities seem intact. A study demonstrated that these patients are:

  • very sensitive to immediate prospects
  • insensitive to negative future consequences
  • unable to base their decisions on previous experience

Another study showed that these patients were unable to generate a skin conductance response immediately before making a decision. On the contrary, healthy people did generate such a response. The authors posed that the lack of this response implies that the patients are unable to generate a somatic marker. In other words, these patients seem unable to experience a gut feeling, which might guide their decision. Some patients could even explain which decisions would be good and which decisions would be bad, but they were still unable to make the right decision.

This indicates, although correlative, that vmPFC patients are unable to base their decision on a gut feeling and, therefore, unable to make the right decision. Moreover, since their intellectual abilities remained intact, it is even more likely that their impaired decision-making might be due to the lack of a gut feeling. Additionally, the results suggest that the vmPFC has a crucial role in the generation of this gut feeling. Based on these findings, it seems plausible that the experience of a gut feeling is essential for beneficial decision-making.

This idea is supported in healthy people by an fMRI study. The study found that good decision-makers show more activity in the vmPFC when judging the valence of emotional pictures than bad decision-makers. Besides emphasizing the role of the vmPFC in the experience of a gut feeling, the study also provides support for an affective aspect – gut feeling – in beneficial decision-making in healthy people.

Concluding thoughts

Making lists of pros and cons can definitely help you to clear your mind. However, it is very unlikely that only that will bring you towards a good decision. The findings described above suggest, although correlative, that your gut feeling helps to guide you to the right decision. So ask your gut in order to make the excellent decision!

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