In Star Trek: The Original Series, we learn that Starship Captains are authorized to trust their instincts.
You are, too.
Instincts are feelings or inclinations that guide us toward specific ideas, conclusions, or actions. Instincts can be wrong, of course, as when we judge a person mistakenly by their appearance or fall in love with a person who doesn’t care for us in return.
But instincts can also be helpful. They can warn us of danger, lead us toward the better of several alternatives, point out people to befriend who will be instructive or beneficial, lead us to wander into positive experiences, and more.
Most of the time, of course, our choices and actions are guided primarily by what we have learned, not only in school, but in our work and our life. This is a good thing, because the world has now grown extremely complex and instincts are insufficient to help you with most of today’s important requirements, like managing your finances or navigating from home to work – at least, not the first few times you try.
Yet we all experience moments when our instincts cry out to us and provide a relatively strong motivation to choose a specific option or initiate a definite action. If we don’t follow that instinct, afterwards we often feel regret.
Here’s a big reason so many people encourage us to follow our instincts: the regret we feel after seeing a good outcome from an instinct we didn’t follow tends to be far greater that the regret we feel after seeing a bad outcome from an instinct we did follow. On the positive side, we generally feel much better when we follow an instinct compared with when we ignore one.
For many of us, the net result of these feelings makes following our instincts very attractive.
Curiously, these differences in our feelings about instincts are themselves instinctual. It’s almost as if our instincts are set up to sell us on following our instincts more often.
But it’s foolish to follow all your instincts, because the power of instincts originally emerged to cope with relatively simple situations: mostly those where danger may or may not be present, less often where we may or may not obtain rewards.
As our work and our lives have grown more complex, we encounter far fewer and much narrower situations where instincts stand out as sensible influences on our choices and actions.
Logic or Reasoning
Some people contend that instincts are tendencies or urges we feel without any component of logic or reasoning. But this may not be true. Other people argue that instincts often incorporate a great deal of accurate reasoning, done at a higher speed and a less conscious level than our brain normally operates.
This may explain why an instinct may, at first, seem a total leap to a specific idea, conclusion, or action without any “thinking” at all. But then, looking back, we may sometimes recognize how the instinct took into account a variety of subtle clues and tiny bits of information our conscious mind ignored or overlooked.
Despite the instances where instincts prove to be entirely rational, there may be some truth to the idea that instincts need not involve conventional “thinking.”
For example, all of us have made instinctual choices that turned out great, even though no rational argument and no factual basis existed to guide us there.
I remember a moment when I had an instinctual urge to visit a house I had just purchased but not yet lived in. When I got there, I found someone had broken in and piled a lot of my expensive gear in the living room for quick removal. Had I arrived sometime later, perhaps even an hour or two, all that gear would have been gone.
I also remember corresponding with a new woman, via a dating site, who told me she thought we were not compatible. Although I knew hardly anything about her and could easily have moved on to the next contact, instead I had a strong urge to accuse her of being closed-minded and argue for a chance to meet. We met, fell in love at first sight, and had 15 wonderful years together until she passed away.
You can’t attribute these kinds of instinctual choices and actions to any entirely logical or rational basis.
I wish I could give you some rules about when to follow your instincts and when not to, but I can’t. You’ll have to make your own decisions, based on:
- The strength of the instinctual feeling,
- The potential costs, alternatives, risks, rewards, and downsides of following or not following the instinct, and
- The persuasive power of any rational “backup” that supports the instinct.
Just remember, it’s complicated!
Regardless of whether an instinct will or will not lead you to a favorable outcome – which you can’t possibly know in advance, instincts are very often a powerful influence and an unpredictable source of satisfaction or regret.
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