Going with your gut IS a data-driven decision

October 8, 2022

Somewhere in a team meeting right now, someone is stressing the importance of making data-driven decisions. “It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter what I think. We need to look at the data and let that guide us!”

There seems to be a clear consensus, before making any decision, that data — and a sufficient amount of it — is not just good, but is required. The “data data data” trend has become so mainstream that it is often outlined, in writing, in corporate operating principles.

However, this approach is at odds with another philosophy.

If you look at the decision-making styles of some of the most successful CEOs, you will often find a common theme — “I went with my gut.”

A popular proponent of this style being Jeff Bezos, “All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts… not analysis”.

What should we, as decision makers, be preaching? Should we stick with one doctrine versus the other? Is there a middle ground? Is there a time & place to make gut-driven decisions, and a time & place to make data-driven decisions? How do we know which one to do or when to switch?

The debate of Data vs. Intuition has been researched & analyzed extensively for decades. Combining the words “gut” and “data” in Google yields results that pin the two styles against each other — this versus that.

This is the wrong way to frame the question.

This is because a gut-driven decision is a subset of a data-driven decision. In other words, an intuitive decision is not the antithesis of a decision backed by analysis — instead, an intuitive decision IS a data-driven decision.

Of course, this “gut data” is not quantitative data churned by a high-tech machine, but data from you — your mind.

As humans, we collect & store incredible amounts of data in our brains with each passing second.

From the Scientific American:

The memory capacity of the human brain [has] the equivalent of 2.5 petabytes of memory capacity. As a number, a “petabyte” means 1024 terabytes or a million gigabytes, so the average adult human brain has the ability to store the equivalent of 2.5 million gigabytes digital memory.

When you go with your gut, you are computing vast amounts of data points in order to synthesis & produce a sound decision…without even realizing because it happens subconsciously and automatically in a short amount of time.

Whether it’s a small decision such as deciding how wide to expand your hand when grasping a water bottle; or a big decision such as deciding whether to fight or flee from an imminent bear attack — you are making a data-driven decision.

Next time you make a business or personal decision, pay attention to what your gut is telling you because that is data.

Does this mean we should always go with our gut?

No, because while your “gut instinct” is data, it is not all the data; and sometimes it is not even reliable data. This heavily varies by individual & the caliber of that individual.

In any good decision, by-and-large, two things must occur:

  1. You must have sufficient data
  2. You must be able to synthesis those data points effectively

While the brain is able to compute these two points effectively to some degree, it has its flaws. Yes, we’ve all made wonderfully intuitive decisions, but we’ve also made plenty of bad ones too. (For more on how unreliable our brains can be, read Leonard Mlodinow’s “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior”).

The good decision-maker is one that can understand his or her limitations within their inner computer (oneself), and when to switch gears back & from the external computer (outside world).

External data is great, but trust your inner data too — it’s more powerful than you might imagine.