“Go with your gut!” We hear this exhortation often enough, but is it ever a good idea? The answer, most psychologists agree, is yes – sometimes. Intuition, the ability to respond intelligently and instantaneously to a change in your environment, can help us as much today as it did our early ancestors. But since the modern world hardly resembles the prehistoric one in which humans evolved, it can also lead us astray. Knowing when to use your instinct, and when to discard it in favour of a more rational approach, can mean the difference between a good decision and a bad one – and sometimes between life and death.
Dating is all about decision-making, and it’s one area where going with your gut makes very good sense. To understand why, imagine the following scenario. A friend invites you to a singles party. You walk into the room and you see, say, twenty guys or girls who you assume are available. How long will it take you to size them up and decide which of them you’d like to get to know better, based on how they look, what they are wearing, the way they’re carrying themselves or using their hands, and so on? Ten seconds? Twenty? We’re great at this kind of social analysis, and it is almost always “from the hip”.
Compare that with dating online. Most sites require you to describe yourself in words, or to describe the kind of person you’d like to meet and their essential attributes (blue eyes, over six feet, enjoys the outdoors etc). Many of them ask you to take a psychometric test. These approaches are predominantly analytical – intuition doesn’t get much of a look-in. Based on all the psychological research we’ve looked at, we think that’s a mistake.
The head and the heart
Dating is one of many domains in life where we encounter this tension between instinct and thinking, between the heart and the head. As a general rule, psychologists agree that it’s best to use your emotion-driven, intuitive mind in complex situations when you’re trying to make sense of a lot of information, or when you’re on familiar ground and can draw on your experience. By contrast, use your analytical faculties (which reside in the relatively recently evolved prefrontal cortex) when the choices are fewer, or when the situation is novel.
By this reckoning, a singles party seems like an obvious place to trust your gut, since while the complexities are numerous (so many cues to consider) we’ve been sussing people out and navigating social environments all our lives. A comparable scenario, albeit one less likely to change the course of your life, is when you’re deciding which cereal to buy in a supermarket, or what to eat from a long menu in a restaurant, or which sandwich to buy in Pret A Manger. In these cases, weighing up all the options and trying to calculate how each will make you feel is way beyond your reasoning capacity. There’s just too much information to process. Better to wing it and decide spontaneously. That way, not only are you more likely to choose well, you’ll also be more satisfied with your choice than if you’d spent ages deliberating.
Another domain where intuition rules is driving. Once you’ve learnt how to drive, handling a car is second nature. We change gear, brake and accelerate, judge distances and avoid running into the cars around us without thinking about what we’re doing. It becomes, as the saying goes, like riding a bike. Yet it is unwise to drive (or ride a bike) entirely on instinct, because it won’t help you if something unexpected happens. If a child dashes into the road in front of you, your immediate reaction is to hit the brakes, which will likely lock up, giving you zero control over what happens next. If, on the other hand, you remain aware at the wheel, you’ll be able to determine how hard to brake, or could even decide to steer around the child. You’ll have some kind of choice.
Your brain on numbers
For some decisions it’s best to ignore your gut entirely, including anything involving numbers (financial advice, health statistics, playing the stockmarket etc). Consider this mental puzzle: if it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 toys, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 toys? Most of us instinctively jump to the wrong answer that “feels” right – 100 – even if we later correct it. Likewise, if we are told that a bat and a ball cost £1.10 in total, and that the bat costs £1 more than the ball, most of us assume (incorrectly) that the ball costs 10p. For problems like this, we need our prefrontal cortex to be on overdrive.
This is the inverse scenario to dating, when it’s probably better to shut that part of your brain down. How do you achieve that online? On 21Pictures, as you may have guessed, our “intuition hack” is to get people to describe themselves in pictures only – not just a few headshots, like you might find on Tinder, but a range of images that sum up their whole lives. The idea is to make it easier for people to grasp, intuitively, what someone is really like, as they might in the real world. For this, pictures intelligently chosen are worth a lot more than words.
Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that instinct should take precedence over analysis in all romantic decision-making. If you’ve started dating someone and you’re considering moving in with them, or marrying them, you may want to think about that decision quite carefully.
A version of this article appeared in the winter 2015 edition of You Can Now magazine