Brain and Body

Research Shows your Gut Instincts Are More Accurate Than Analytical Thinking

March 11, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Lightbulb with the word IDEA written inside it
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Trust your “Aha!” moments.

As students and working professionals, we’re often told to take our time to analytically think through assignments or projects to produce our best work. However, according to a new study, it might be best to trust our gut instincts — or “Aha!” Moments — since research shows that these sudden insights are more accurate than slow, analytical thought processes.

“Insight is unconscious and automatic -- it can't be rushed,” said Drexel University professor John Kounios, co-author of the book The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain.

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“When the process runs to completion in its own time and all the dots are connected unconsciously, the solution pops into awareness as an Aha! Moment. This means that when a really creative, breakthrough idea is needed, it's often best to wait for the insight rather than settling for an idea that resulted from analytical thinking.”

The researchers set up four different types of timed puzzle experiments — ones with visual elements, linguistic elements, or both — and found that the answers that came from sudden insights were more likely to be correct than those who relied on analytic thought.

In the linguistic puzzles, 94 percent of the responses based on insight were correct, versus 78 percent of the analytic responses. For the visual puzzles, 78 percent of the insight responses were correct, compared to just 42 percent of the analytic ones.

Further, the people who relied on their insights were more likely to miss the deadline, but they provided more correct answers than the analytical people. Those who responded based on an idea that they worked out with conscious, careful thought were more likely to provide an answer by the deadline, but the answers were often last-minute and incorrect.

The researchers say that the pressure of the deadline is what may have caused so many of the analytic responses to fail — rushing to come up with an answer during the last 5 seconds of a timed puzzle certainly isn’t going to boast an individual’s best ability to come up with a solid answer.

"Deadlines create a subtle — or not so subtle — background feeling of anxiety," Kounios said.

"Anxiety shifts one's thinking from insightful to analytic. Deadlines are helpful to keep people on task, but if creative ideas are needed, it's better to have a soft target date. A drop-dead deadline will get results, but they are less likely to be creative results."

Of course, these results don’t mean that taking the time to analyze something is always going to result in an incorrect answer or that those sudden insights are always going to be right.

However, the researchers argue that the findings, published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning, suggest that more weight should be placed on these gut insights.

"This means that in all kinds of personal and professional situations, when a person has a genuine, sudden insight, then the idea has to be taken seriously," Kounios said. "It may not always be correct, but it can have a higher probability of being right than an idea that is methodically worked out."

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