Gut reaction?

中国日报网 2013-04-26 10:49



Gut reaction?

Reader question:

Please explain “gut reaction” in this sentence: “My gut reaction was that I shouldn’t trust this man with anything.”

My comments:

In other words, the speaker was following his gut – speaking from the heart instead of the head.

The heart represents one’s feelings and emotions. The head represents reason and rationalization.

In our case the speaker was speaking out of his gut feeling (which is the more popular expression).

Gut feeling?

Yes, the gut, or stomach has feelings as Western scientists have increasingly found out. The Orientals have always known this, from the gut, of course, i.e. instinct and intuition. When we lose someone dear, for example, we feel the pain deep inside, in the stomach and the bowels. And as medical doctors now confirm, people who suffer from depression often also have chronic stomach ailments, and vice versa.

Back to our example, perhaps the speaker took a look at the man and disliked him immediately – call it hate at the first sight. It happens. There must be something in this man’s appearance or mannerism that prompted immediate distrust from the speaker.

The response, also called gut response, was so quick and spontaneous that there is no way he could say that it came from the head. In other words, it must not have come after careful thought.

And basically that’s it. Our gut reaction is something out of our rational control. And often than not, it’s reliable. After all, it’s an inner mechanism that’s developed over the whole course of evolution.

However, learn to use your head, too, when it comes to decision making. Although feelings and emotions cannot be wrong (because they’re our natural, physical responses), our actions based on feelings and emotions can be wrong and harmful.

Alright, no more rationalizing. Here are examples of gut feeling, gut reaction or, another variation, gut response:

1. Consider, for example, a practicing Muslim who doesn’t eat pork. She has avoided pork products all her life, and as an adult, doesn’t think twice about passing up bacon and pork chops. A gut reaction to the food makes it undesirable to her. It’s the same feeling an Orthodox Jew who follows dietary kosher laws might have about eating meat and cheese together.

“These violations of ethical mores are felt to be dirty, disgusting or not sacred in some way,” says Eric Hekler, an assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at ASU.

These kinds of reactions aren’t always religious in nature. Some vegetarians, for example, say they became disgusted by meat after reading about conditions in meat packing plants in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” or watching documentaries about how animals are treated on factory farms.

Hekler is interested in tapping into human morals to produce healthier eating habits. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, he and his colleagues Tom Robinson and Christopher Gardner found that students at Stanford who took a class examining the ethics of food production made more healthy food choices by the end of the class than students who took courses on human health.

“We got people to eat better by focusing more on the environmental and sustainability aspects, rather than focusing just on a message of health,” Hekler says. Surveys of the students revealed that those who took his food and society class ate more vegetables and less fatty meat and dairy by the end of the class than students enrolled in the human health courses.

These results suggest that appealing to a person’s morals, rather than just giving them facts, could be an effective way to change behavior. In ongoing research, Hekler and his ASU colleagues Punam Ohri-Vachaspathi and Christopher Wharton have gathered survey data from about 600 ASU students to explore ways of linking healthful eating with morality.

Why tap into morals and emotion to change eating habits and behavior? If someone wants to lose weight or improve their health, there is an abundance of information online about the benefits of physical activity and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. But as obesity rates rise, it’s clear that facts alone aren’t enough.

That could be because ultimately, our gut reactions are stronger than our rational thoughts. Hekler explains this concept with a metaphor first developed by Jonathan Haidt, whose Moral Foundations Theory is a core inspiration for Hekler’s research. Haidt says your intuitive, emotional response is like an elephant, while rational thought is the rider.

“There’s this intuitive part of you, which is the elephant underneath, and if he really wants those peanuts, the rider can stop him for a short time but will eventually get overwhelmed and tired,” Hekler says. He hopes with further research to develop an intervention package that will effectively target the elephant.

- Gut reaction: Morality in food choice,, September 25, 2012.

2. If the Piedmont region is opened up to fracking, keep the wastewater away from our coastal backyard. That's the sentiment of many local elected leaders as the state Republican leadership appears eager to open its arms to hydraulic fracturing as a home-grown source of natural gas.

“My gut response: No, no-no-no-no-no,” said Oak Island Mayor Betty Wallace.

Injection of wastewater into deep wells is one way to dispose of the chemically laced byproduct produced by fracking, which releases gas by blasting a complex mixture of water, chemicals and sand into shale rock formations. There are other options for wastewater, including industry reuse and recycling, such as for agriculture purposes after a thorough scrubbing.

But the idea that officials are even studying the possibility of deep well injection sites for wastewater – currently banned under state law – doesn't sit well with many local officials.

Recently voiced concerns among coastal lawmakers have prompted a key member of the Republican House leadership to tap the brakes on Senate Bill 76 as it begins its process in the House. The bill, which calls for the issuing of permits for fracking in March 2015, quickly sailed through the Senate late last month.

- Politicians air their concerns about fracking, wastewater,, March 17, 2013.

3. Have you ever bought a single company’s stock? Did you come to regret it? Retire on the gains from it? Maybe something in-between?

Leaving aside for a moment the enormous level of risk one assumes, we often feel tempted to buy a single stock because we think we know something about it.

Maybe you’re in the same sector professionally. As the great Peter Lynch, manager of the legendary Fidelity Magellan Fund, once put it, investors should buy what they know.

He didn’t mean buy your own firm’s stock. Rather, Lynch believes that having a job in the telecom business or manufacturing or retail means you probably know more about your firm and its competitors than a typical New York-based analyst. Enough to have an edge.

Nevertheless, that edge can cut both ways. Your knowledge of a given economic sector or understanding of an asset class — say, real estate or mining — gives you a leg up, for sure.

At the same time, however, it floods your brain with confidence, even dangerous levels of overconfidence.

Nate Silver, the statistician best known for accurately calling the last presidential election, talked recently about the problem of overconfidence in an interview.

Referring to the behavioral finance pioneer Daniel Kahneman, Silver explained that the reason so many “experts” get things totally wrong is, in large part, because they are experts.

In short, they know too much, so much that they sometimes confuse their personal views with facts. They’re drowning in their own Kool-Aid.

Most things are fundamentally too complicated to easily guess the outcome, Silver explains. Overconfidence causes us to discount the risks and plunge ahead, only to find out later how wrong we can really be.

So, should you never buy a single company’s stock? Or invest in single asset classes? Well, that’s a bit much, perhaps.

But retirement investors should understand that the “gut feeling” they have that a stock will rise or that an asset class is due to rebound is about 50% knowledge and 50% pure emotion.

Certainty is an emotion, one that blinds you to risk. Anybody who has ever bought a stock at “the bottom” and watched it fall even farther knows this feeling.

“How could the whole market be so wrong?” you think to yourself, “Why don’t they understand the fundamentals at work here?”

The “market” doesn’t know what you personally know. But it also doesn’t overvalue what you mistakenly believe.

That’s why the market sells off some investments from time to time — until it’s the right moment to buy back in.

- Ignore Your ‘Gut Feeling’ About Stocks,, April 22, 2013.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Hot seat?

Off color?

Tighter ship?

Jumped the shark?

Against all odds

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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