Picture this: You're looking for a new home, and your real estate agent shows you the perfect place overlooking the water at a price way lower than the market. Your instincts tell you there must be something wrong with the house. The agent assures you the owner just wants a quick sale. Should you buy it?
Or, let's say a friendly superior from work invites you to his/her hotel room for cocktails while on a business trip. Your instincts warn you not to put yourself in a risky situation. But you wonder if you'll unnecessarily risk offense by turning down an innocent beverage. What should you do? Life is full of these quandaries, and much of the time we humans choose to ignore our instincts — that voice in our head that tells us to do or not do something.
"Instincts are the most automatic and ingrained response to any scenario presented by the world to a brain-equipped organism," says computational psychologist Dr. Stephen Thaler in an email. "They need to be fast and non-contemplative to successfully deal with sudden threats and opportunities in the world."
As human beings, we're born with instincts for survival, such as a fight-or-flight response, which helps us assess a situation and determine if we should meet danger head-on or make haste for the exit.
It may seem obvious what to do if you're faced with a wild animal like a grizzly bear (or maybe not). But other situations are more nuanced, such as the ones described earlier. Should we always follow our instincts? And why don't we?
"The most likely reason that people do not follow their instincts stems from their self-image — governed by the narrative self housed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), among other brain areas," emails Kyra Bobinet, M.D., a neuroscience designer and CEO of engagedIN, a neuroscience firm that specializes in behavior change. (The DLPFC is the region of the brain that deals with memory, reasoning, planning and other executive functions.) "This means that our subconscious is constantly screening every experience and action with the question, 'Is this me or not?' We buy clothes, eat food, or post things on social media that fits the image of 'me'— while rejecting anything that is 'not me' — including an instinct that goes against who we think we are."
The funny thing is that we often perceive instincts to be irrational snap judgements, but the process is more intricate than that. In fact, instinct is a compilation of memories and experiences that usually lead us to make the best choice possible based on previous occurrences.
"As humans, we need to conserve our conscious mind, or working memory, for pressing decisions and problems. In contrast, our implicit memory system operates in our subconscious, tracking and aggregating our experiences into recognizable patterns," Bobinet says. "We experience instinct, or intuition, when the implicit memory system recognizes a pattern that is either repeating too often or has significant consequence for us — and it enters the conscious mind. Instinct is an internal alarm system that mostly spares our conscious energy until it is absolutely necessary."
That's all well and good, but most of us never realize that's what's going on. So, we choose instead to ignore our instincts. One reason is fear of missing out, according to psychologist Dr. Michael Salamon. He points to a study that showed 19 percent of brides who experienced cold feet but married anyway were divorced four years later (versus 8 percent of brides who experienced no doubts).
"[The fear] that, if 'I don't get married now I may never get married,' can be one of the driving causes for people to go through with weddings they feel discomfort about," he says in an email. "Another reason is belief that they are invincible. In those situations, people think they are stronger, more adept than they actually are and put themselves in situations where they get hurt both physically and emotionally."
Another explanation for why some people ignore instincts more than others relates to early childhood, according to psychologist and niche dating site founder Dr. Wyatt Fisher. "As children we go through a phase called autonomy vs shame and doubt. If we are praised often for our new abilities we develop a sense of autonomy; however, if we are criticized for our failed attempts at new abilities growing up, then we develop a sense of shame and doubt. Adults who doubt their instincts most usually were criticized or neglected most growing up."
Don't forget, there's a difference between good and bad instincts. "A good instinct is self-protective, such as having a feeling someone might be a threat or a new friend may not be very trustworthy," says Fisher. "A bad instinct is when we have an urge to cause harm to others, usually out of hurt or resentment." Adds neuroscientist Kyra Bobinet, "A bad instinct may be defined by a false perception projected from a past experience, such as believing a big white dog is about to bite you only because a similar-looking dog bit you when you were young."