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Episode 227: You Can't Always Trust Your Gut


And hello to you, and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast, the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be. I'm Psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled, You Can't Always Trust Your Gut. And if you are ready, we'll start the show.
Hi there everybody. Welcome to a new month. How's it all going? Sounds weird, but sometimes it's difficult to tell, isn't it? On paper, things can be fine, but you can still have a funny feeling that everything's gonna go wrong soon. As if our instinct, our unconscious mind, hasn't quite caught up with reality.
Instincts are great, mostly. I love the fact that we have a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. Never fails to fascinate me. I was taking my son to school once, never forget this, and we were about halfway there, and he just randomly said, Oh, that's what it is. Damn it. What you on about? Says I. And he told me that all the while we'd been driving, something had been bugging him. He'd had this funny feeling that he'd forgotten something, but he didn't know what it was. Turns out it was his watch. He wasn't wearing his watch like he normally did, and he said that there was this slight sense of anxiety in his body that had been there since we left the house. But now that he consciously knew why it was there, the feeling went.
He'd remembered what he'd forgotten, and so now, even though he can't do anything about it, The anxiety was resolved, and obviously being so interested in psychology, the whole experience is fascinating to me. That our unconscious mind is telling us that something's wrong, but can't tell us what it is because it doesn't work in language. With with words, unless we've got schizophrenia and we hear voices, usually our unconscious is too simple for that. It can only give us emotions, sensations in our body that either tell us that our expectations have been met and we are safe, or expectations have not been met and things are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
How amazing is that? This, this gut instinct that runs in the background effortlessly thinking so that we don't have to, it's brilliant when it's working correctly, of course. Because we can't always trust our gut, frustratingly. It might be amazing. But it's also simple enough to get things wrong, sometimes completely wrong.
It's one thing for it to compare our reality with our expectations when we're driving to work and we've gotta take a diversion and our unconscious mind goes. Hey, up. What's all this? Wasn't expecting to be driving down here today. And it makes the journey feel a bit funny. Or there's those properly bizarre videos that people make deliberately doing things wrong, like cutting cake in a weird way or tearing kitchen roll, but not along the perforations. You can find 'em on YouTube. There's a whole genre about it called Unsatisfying Videos. It makes you feel funny watching them because they're of normal everyday things that you might do or see all the time. Things that our brain has prior experiences of and so creates an expectation, and when those things don't go according to our expectations, it makes us feel anxious.
It's very weird. But when our prior experiences aren't healthy, like being mistreated, neglected, abused. Then later in life when we're in a friendship or a relationship where we are not being mistreated, neglected, or abused, then it's not gonna feel right. It's going to make us anxious like I was talking about last month on Patreon on the trauma reenactment episode if you heard that. And this is all part of the good old fight or flight response, the stress response we're all descendants of people who, if we're honest, only survived because of the stress response back when our brains were small, and we only had unconscious thoughts.
We didn't think consciously. We only had our instincts to guide us, and here we are millions of years later, still using those instincts because it still keeps us safe today. But instead of leopards and crocodiles and so on. It's keeping us wary of each other and therein lies a problem because the fight or flight response doesn't just make us feel anxious.
Life is mostly, I hope, the absence of the fight or flight making us feel safe. So as well as feeling as if we need to withdraw from certain people, it plays a part in who we are, feel drawn towards whether that's casually, professionally or romantically, our gut instinct will tell us whether it feels that things are right or not.
But it's only a feeling. Sensations in our body based on instincts, habits and expectations. It's not really a thinking process. There's no such thing as a thinking instinct, because for the most part, thinking takes conscious, deliberate action. So, much like the abuse reenactment thing I was on about the other week, meaning that we can't always trust who we feel safe around.
We can't always trust who we feel anxious around either. This is prompted really by some comments that I regularly see on the internet, on mental health forums that I occasionally dip into where someone might say that they've met someone, and although they seem nice, they are conscientious, thoughtful, and interesting, something just doesn't feel right about them.
And so many people reply with things like, Go with your gut. Trust your instincts. If it doesn't feel right, then it isn't right. And there might be times where that's correct. There might be times where because of attractiveness or something, we miss the subtleties in somebody that could actually be a red flag.
And our instincts, our unconscious mind is picking up on it, but our conscious mind doesn't because we're too preoccupied with the things that we like about them. Then we miss the obvious lies or the the fact that you've never met them before. It's the first date, but they're trying to borrow money from you.
But it works the other way around as well because of what we call cognitive biases, particularly the in-group bias, sometimes called in-group favouritism. The in-group bias and the out-group bias will make us feel, not think, but feel more warmly or positively towards somebody who we perceive is part of our tribe and more suspicious and negative to someone who we think of as outside of our tribe.
It's human nature. We can't control it. Well, we can, but it takes conscious effort. It takes thinking, not feeling, because you can't always trust your instincts. Remember the whole C B T theory thing, that emotions influence thoughts. Well, this happens with the in-group bias, we feel safer with the person who we perceive as one of us, which leads us to have what feels like a genuine opinion when we've given it no thought at all, but it leads to thoughts afterwards. But thoughts that are based on feelings rather than on actual critical thinking. And that shouldn't be how we form our opinions. We need to actually think for ourselves because we can then miss out on a lot of the opportunities to make great close friends, just because their Bumble profile mentioned that they're a Heavy Rock fan and you like Jazz. Having 10% of them being something that you don't associate with shouldn't stop you from feeling connected to the other 90%. But the out group bias is likely to give us a negative feeling towards them, and that might mean that we don't even read the rest of their profile and we miss the fact that they are actually really interested in some of the similar things that you are interested in.
And you could have had some great times together. So, this is why job applications that managers need to look through, they can sometimes not show people's names. HR will strip those out. The recruitment departments know that people have this unconscious bias, which means they're gonna favour people who they feel are part of their in group, and it can easily mean that the ideal candidate for a job gets completely overlooked.
Just because they don't have a, a, a white name for example, or specifically you can see who they are and they're not a middle class white bloke. Cognitive biases have a lot to answer for because combining the ingroup and outgroup biases with what we also call the halo and horns effect, you get these unconscious drives to have opinions and beliefs that don't have any real basis.
The halo effect is when we see one trait, about somebody that's positive and it shines a positive light on everything else about them. And the horns effect is the opposite. By noticing something negative about somebody, it then sours everything else. It's why advertisers get celebrities to endorse them.
If it's an actor or a singer that we've probably already put a halo on. Then that celebrity's opinion about Premier Inn or Soda Stream or whatever becomes more appropriate to us, and the horns effect is the opposite. If you already have a prejudice about someone with an Irish accent, for example, because you once got conned by somebody pretending to tarmac your drive, and they just disappeared off halfway through the job with your cash, which is a story we've heard a few times, it easily turns into an unconscious bias the next time you meet a bloke with an Irish accent and you discount someone's opinions and devalue them. You might consciously condemn racism and say how cruel it is. But we will still fall for it. Most studies suggest that racism is impossible to eradicate. It's a human, tribal, unconscious bias that can't be switched off, but it can be recognised in us, it can be understood, accepted, and then overridden just like every other unconscious instinct. It's no more of an instinct to be suspicious of people not in our tribe than is to prefer sweet foods over non sweet foods. But we can still consciously choose to eat healthily and still enjoy our meals. But we have to accept that the bias exists in the first place. You can't override something that you refuse to accept is there.
It's why people who are overweight get judged so much, not just for being overweight, but other aspects of them get judged unfavourably as well. They get overlooked for promotion. They don't get through interview stages. They're genuinely perceived as not very clever. Easy experiments to arrange if you're studying psychology and you want to have a go on this. You get a series of images of people who are overweight and some who aren't, and you have quotes randomly assigned to one of the people.
And you ask participants to rate how much they agree with the statements. And what we tend to find is that the statements are considered more favourable if the person that the quote is associated with is slim. This is how stupid we all are, and it holds us all back. It stops us from enjoying TV shows because the characters aren't from our tribe.
It prevents us from enjoying music because it's not in our native language. The reason I think this is so important is because of shame. What has happened over the last, I dunno, 20 years, maybe longer, is that if someone reacts to their unconscious biases, they display a low opinion of someone for no reason other than they're from a different tribe, a different culture, a different lifestyle, different gender identity, sexuality, whatever.
If somebody says they don't like gays, they don't like Jews, they don't like people with Down Syndrome. They are shamed by the public. They're shamed for admitting something that's a part of them. Now, I, I don't think they should be proud for being prejudiced. But I do know that shaming somebody for something is not a particularly successful way of getting people to address their problems, and we're all guilty of that on social media.
Oh, I make those mistakes on Twitter sometimes and think, oh, for goodness sake, but it makes the other person double down on those beliefs. That's why fat shaming doesn't inspire weight loss. If it did, we wouldn't have a problem with obesity because people have been fat shaming their children and grandchildren for decades because it feels like the right thing to do.
Back to that gut instinct thing again, it might feel that if you criticise, it's gonna encourage motivation in somebody else. Nope. You can't trust your gut, remember. You need to actually use your head as well, whether that's in how you handle questions in your relationships, or where you stand on the train, or whether you sit in the only free space, but it's next to the guy with a St. George Cross on his T-shirt. Be aware of your gut, but don't always act upon it. Right. Time to go. I'll be back on Monday on Patreon, as always. The link is in the description if you'd like to support me on there. Not sure what I'm talking about this month. I was thinking about ego states, motivation, setting boundaries and insecure attachment in relationships, I think, but they're just penciled in.
But you've gotta plan, haven't you? If you fail to plan, then your plan to fail as the old phrase goes. So I'll speak to you on there. In the meantime be good to yourself. Be kind to everybody else. Don't take things too seriously. Take care folks.