Don’t go with your gut instinct

People often say you should just “go with your gut” or “follow your heart” when choosing a career. But how useful is this advice, really?

A large body of research in psychology shows that our intuitions are often misleading and often beaten by a simple formula. We’re bad at judging what will make us most happy in the future. Our intuitions are only reliable when:

  1. The environment in which we’re making decisions is sufficiently predictable
  2. We have enough experience making similar decisions in similar environments
  3. We’ve had good feedback on past decisions

What does all this mean for career choice? For the big questions like “in which career will I be most successful?” and “in which career can I have the most impact?” these conditions do not hold, so we shouldn’t expect our gut instinct to be reliable. Generally career decisions are new, one-off and have unclear feedback, so it’s difficult for our gut to learn how to handle them.

However, our gut instinct should do a good job at some important inputs into career decisions, such as “do I like these people?”, “can I trust this person?”, “am I excited by this work?”. We may also be able to rely on our gut if its tapping into the experience of others. If you’re experiencing a negative gut reaction to a career decision, it may be due to a problem with one of these factors.

Overall, it’s worth checking our intuitions when it comes to choosing a career. There are three steps to this:

  1. Ask whether your judgement is likely to be accurate: can you tick the three criteria above?
  2. Check your judgement against other sources of evidence: get more information about a career path through work experience and talking to people, and try using a more systematic approach, such as our framework and how to choose process.
  3. If a conflict between your gut instinct and a more systematic approach remains, try to understand what’s causing the disagreement and resolve it.

In what follows, we explain our reasoning in more depth.

Why you should be wary of gut judgements in career choice

To make good career decisions, you need to know how much weight to give your intuitions. As there’s a fair amount of research on the nature and trustworthiness of intuitive judgements in general, we decided this was worth looking into. The common thread that emerges in the literature is that gut judgements are most useful when three factors are present: experience, predictability (of the environment), and feedback. Applying these findings to what we know about career choice, we believe there’s good reason to be wary of what our intuitions tell us when making career decisions for the following reasons:

1) Lack of experience: We don’t have a great deal of experience making career decisions, at least not as individuals, and not at making “big” decisions about long-term career goals; what we’ll ultimately enjoy, or what will allow us to have the most impact. These are the kinds of decisions we make once or twice a lifetime.

2) Lack of predictability: The world in which we’re making our career decisions is constantly changing, so it’s not all that easy to predict what’s going to happen. The job market today looks very different today from how it did ten years ago, and will undoubtedly have changed a great deal in another ten years’ time. Your own preferences and skills will also change and develop as you learn more. This means there’s probably a limit to how useful your intuitions, based on past experience, will be for making judgements about the future.

3) Lack of feedback: Feedback on career decisions is often slow. When we choose to take a particular job, or to head down a certain career path, it can be months if not years until we get any indication of whether the decision was a good one or not, and it’s very hard to know what would have happened if you’d taken a different path.

How strong is the evidence for these claims? We’ve surveyed a large body of research looking at when intuitions work for us, when they don’t, and why, using meta-analyses rather than single studies where at all possible. We then asked whether these findings generalise to career choice from the kinds of cases studies. Given the extent of research and range of different situations in which intuitions have been studied, it seems likely that the general findings are robust enough to apply to the domain of career choice. However, as we didn’t find any research looking at the role of intuitions in career choice directly, there is an inference being made here, and in that respect the evidence could be stronger. It might also be true that intuitions help with some more specific decisions relevant to career choice, which I’ll discuss in more detail in the next section.

A final important consideration is that gut judgements seem to be at their most valuable when time is limited and being more thorough is impractical. Career choice doesn’t seem to be such a situation: it’s a decision worth taking some time over. This means there’s little to lose in double checking our intuitions by getting more evidence.

When might intuitions be useful in career choice?

Career choice is perhaps better thought of as a sequence of many small, related decisions, rather than this one insurmountable decision of “What’s the ‘right’ career for me?” In practice, this needs breaking down into smaller questions that can be tackled more easily, questions like “Which of my next possible options allows me to best develop the skills and experience I need to further myself towards my goals?” These questions, in turn, need breaking down yet further: “Will I get on with the people I’m working with in this job?”, “Will this working environment help me to work productively?”, and so on. It seems plausible that we might sometimes have enough experience and/or wisdom from others for our intuitions to be useful in making some of these lower-level decisions.

There are certainly factors relevant to career choice which we might be able to make good gut judgements about. For example, we tend to be pretty good at judging what kinds of people we’ll get on with. We’re interacting with people on a daily basis and get good feedback on which interactions work best from each one. So if your “gut” tells you that a job’s not for you because you have a strong feeling you won’t get on with your boss, then it’s probably worth listening to. Similarly, your intuitions about what kind of work you’ll enjoy or be good at may be pretty trustworthy if you’ve spent a lot of time doing very similar work in the past. If you’ve spent the last three summers doing internships in different accounting firms, your “gut feeling” that you won’t enjoy working at another, similar, firm, should probably carry some weight. And if you have a negative gut reaction about a certain career choice, you should certainly stop and think – your gut might be warning you about one of these factors.

Finally, whilst we’re inexperienced as individuals, people collectively have been making career decisions for centuries, and received good feedback on what works over time. This suggests that some gut judgements, if based on received wisdom or by looking at patterns of success in the past, may be worth listening to. Exercise caution here, though: recall the earlier point that the job market is changing rapidly, so some of what was useful for making career decisions in the past may no longer be so helpful.

Other potential benefits of unconscious reasoning

The psychologist Dijksterhuis proposed “unconscious thought theory”, which holds that complex decisions made unconsciously can be better than those made consciously. There have been studies showing that people make the best decisions after thoroughly considering the evidence, distracting themselves (to let their unconscious mind process the evidence), then making a gut judgement. And this lines up with common tips to “sleep on it” and similar.

However, this line of research has faced criticism from other researchers who claim to be unable to replicate the studies.1

Overall, the results we’ve sketched above are supported by a much larger body of evidence and endorsement by scientists than unconscious thought theory. However, it illustrates the shaky state of much of psychology, so we’d propose caution. Consider both systematic techniques and your gut judgement, and try to understand what’s causing disagreements between them, rather than blindly going with one approach.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. (1) Abbot, A, (2015). Unconscious thought not so smart after all. (2) Newell, B. R.; Shanks, D. R. (2014). "Unconscious influences on decision making: A critical review". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 38: 1. doi:10.1017/S0140525X12003214. (3) Nieuwenstein, M. R.; Wierenga, T.; Morey, R. D.; Wicherts, J. M.; Blom, T. N.; Wagenmakers, E.-J.; van Rijn, H. (2015). "On making the right choice: A meta-analysis and large-scale replication attempt of the unconscious thought advantage". Judgment and Decision Making 10 (1): 1–17