Learning the news: Forget your gut – go with your head

It’s tempting to trust “gut instinct” over information that tells us we’re wrong. The thing is, research proves your gut wrong again and again, writes Roger Plothow.

Go with your gut. Trust your heart, not your head.

Bad advice. Your gut is usually wrong. Your heart, well, it’s great at pumping blood, not so great at deciphering fact from fiction. Going with your gut can break your heart.

We all want to think we have good instincts. We can sniff out a bad apple just through “bad vibes” someone throws off. It certainly must be true that some people have better instincts than others. But, when it comes to media literacy, there’s no replacement for critical thinking.

Researchers R. Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks from Ohio State University and University of Michigan, respectively, report that about half of Americans agreed with the statement, “I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not.” What does that really mean?

“People are susceptible to political misinformation because they tend to believe things that favor their side – even if it isn’t grounded in data or science,” they wrote. “There are numerous factors at play, from the influence of nonconscious emotions to the need to defend a group that the individual identifies with.”

“For these reasons, millions of Americans believe things that aren’t true.”

Intuition is really no more than a combination of your personal experiences, biases, observations, beliefs and perspective rolled into one big comfort zone in which you’d really like to stay. It’s a bad place from which to make decisions about little things like truth versus fiction.

“ … When it comes to fighting the scourge of misinformation, there’s a simple strategy that everyone can use,” they write. “If you are someone who consistently checks your intuition about what is true against the evidence, you are less likely to be misled. It may seem like common sense, but learning to dig into the story behind that shocking headline can help you avoid spreading falsehoods.”

It’s well-known and pretty obvious that we tend to believe information that conforms to our political or religious beliefs, even without evidence. We like our bubbles and wish to stay comfortably inside them. But none of this means you need to ignore your instincts. It’s not that simple.

“In the end, knowing how much someone trusts his or her intuition actually tells you very little about how much proof that person will need before he or she will believe a claim,” they write. “Our research shows that using intuition is not the opposite of checking the evidence: Some people trust their instincts while at the same time valuing evidence; others deny the importance of both; and so forth.”

We all lean on our instincts to one degree or another, and it’s undoubtedly true that some of us are instinctively better and recognizing truth that others. Regardless, relying entirely on your gut is going to get you in trouble.

Here’s the commonsense conclusion from our researchers: “The bigger the role evidence plays in shaping a person’s beliefs, the more accurate that person tends to be.”

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.