Trust Your Gut

What goes through our minds when we need to make a split-second decision–in the blink of an eye? How do police officers and emergency responders make life-and-death decisions in mere moments? What is that feeling we get in the pit of our stomach that something is wrong? Can you know within six minutes of meeting someone that you want to go on a date?

Malcolm Gladwell takes on these questions (and more!) in his latest best-selling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. [1]

The Fake

In the early eighties, the J. Paul Getty Museum paid nearly ten million dollars for a marble statue from the 6th century BC. For more than a year, and prior to purchasing the statue, the Getty subjected the statue to numerous scientific analyses to establish its authenticity. As soon as it went on display, however, a number of experts on Greek art, having viewed the statue only briefly, instinctively felt that there was something wrong with the statue. They couldn't pinpoint exactly what was wrong, but they said it just didn't "look right." More than a year of study and scientific analyses had failed to reveal what the art experts grasped in two seconds: it was a fraud.

What is happening here, explains Gladwell, is rapid cognition, which takes place in our adaptive unconscious. This is not the dark, seedy subconscious of Freud, replete with oedipal complexes. The adaptive unconscious is the part of our brain that can make instantaneous decisions — like a giant computer instantly sorting through all the data and coming up with a conclusion.

Snap Judgments in Dating

Speed-dating is another intriguing example of rapid cognition. In speed-dating, a group of men and women engage in short, six-minute conversations during which they have to decide whether or not they want to go on a date. If they like someone within 6 minutes, they check off his or her number on a form; when there is a match (i.e. both individuals indicate on their forms that they want to date), then they receive the e-mail address of that individual. The speed-daters make instant decisions about whether or not they like someone based on things such as: she had a tongue piercing, or he gave me a red rose, or he had a southern accent. [2]

Way too superficial, you say? But this sort of "thin-slicing" (decision-making based on a thin slice of information) happens all the time. Usually, people call this their "gut reaction" or "gut feeling."

Many people have a singular mistrust for their "gut instincts" or feelings. But feelings are morally neutral. When they are governed by what is reasonable and good, our feelings are also good. If our feelings contribute to an evil action, then they become evil. The way we willfully behave, based on our feelings, can be sinful. If, for example, if I become angry with someone and nurture hateful feelings toward him or even wish to harm him, then I commit a sin.

Feelings are important. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "Feelings or passions are emotions …that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil" [3] When we spring out the way of a swerving car, we are reacting appropriately to fear. When we read about social injustice, we are appropriately angry. When we love, we are drawn to what, or whom, we love. "Moral perfection consists in man's being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite, as in the words of the psalm, ‘My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.'" [4]

Some good Catholics fear strong feelings. An article went around Catholic Match advising young women to "never trust your heart" in matters of romance. But why should we never trust it? Our emotions are a gift from God to help us discern what is good (or evil). It would be absurd to say to our fiancée, "I rationally approached this relationship and determined that you meet all the criteria for an excellent spouse. I don't actually have any feelings for you, but I think you would make a good wife."

Very logical, Mr. Spock. But what kind of a marriage would that be?

We have feelings and emotions, because we are physical beings. Angels do not have feelings, because they are purely spiritual beings. Christ, the Word become flesh, had feelings: he became quite angry with the Pharisees ("Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart…" Mark 3:5) and with the money changers outside the temple. Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and as he approached Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion, "he saw the city and wept over it" (Luke 19:41). In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, he was in agony ("sorrowful even to death," Mt 26:38). Jesus experienced the utmost desolation and abandonment on the Cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

Part of becoming a mature Christian, is integrating in a healthy way our reason and our emotions, acknowledging our feelings while not letting them run wild. With the help of grace, we can allow ourselves to feel deeply, yet not be completely driven by our passions. We also have to let other people acknowledge their feelings. Our feelings are our own. Nobody makes me feel sad or happy.

"A person has to have a healthy emotional life, for without it he is defenseless against the powers of evil," writes Father Emmerich Vogt, O.P., Friar Provincial of the Western Dominican Province and founder of the Twelve Step Review. [5]

A friend of mine, who recently broke off a relationship with a young man whom she had been seeing casually, told me that she felt "terrible" and "uncharitable." She knew that this relationship was not going to work in the long run, because they had very different values, and because she was beginning to feel uncomfortable with him. He was pressuring her, and she was feeling manipulated. She then consulted a priest who agreed that it would be more prudent to break it off. Though she tried to be respectful when she told the young man that they could no longer go out, he was hurt and angry. He blamed her. He accused her of being afraid to fall in love. My friend was miserable. "Am I being mean? Are my bad feelings a sign that I should get back together with him?"

My friend had two "gut feelings" that were at odds. The first was her feeling that something was not right with the relationship with her male friend. The second was her feeling of anxiety after she had broken up. She felt that perhaps she had done something wrong because he was so hurt after she broke off the relationship. She wondered whether she was being mean.

Which Feeling Was Right?

I reminded her that she had spoken to him respectfully and had sought wise counsel from a priest, to see whether her first instinct was credible. She rightly recognized that a trusted spiritual advisor would be more objective than her girlfriends. She had prayed about her decision and then had spoken with him in person, presented their differing values without attacking his character in any way. Finally, she promised to keep the young man in her prayers. So long as she had remained charitable, she did not make him feel angry. She had to let him take responsibility for his own anger and resentment.

Her feeling of anguish in this case was actually a cross that she had to take up; doing the right thing can be difficult emotionally. But our sensitivity toward other people's feelings does not mean we should simply keep people stringing along, out of a fear of hurt feelings. Our feelings can lead us astray, also. When my friend was distraught, fearing that she was responsible for someone else's feelings, she had to stop and think: Is this valid?

Being charitable is not the same as being "nice." Being nice means never saying anything that might cause anyone to feel hurt or disappointed. But this is often not possible, and sometimes not even charitable. Charity seeks the true good of a person's soul. To string the young man along indefinitely may not have caused hurt feelings in the short run, but in the long run, it would not have been charitable, either.

God has created us to be capable of experiencing strong feelings–so we can use them for good purpose. Through our emotions we intuit the good and suspect evil. [6] They are our God-given, built-in radar. Growing in wisdom and in virtue means knowing when one's feelings are leading one toward what is good for our soul, and making a prudent decision to follow what is truly good.

"The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness" (Mt 7:22).

If I make a snap judgment that a young black male with long hair is probably a drug dealer, this may be a case of bad rapid cognition, possibly due to unconscious racism, which the author of Blink discovered when he grew his hair long. This would have been incorrect — and morally wrong if I had acted upon that snap judgment.

Rapid cognition is like following your conscience — if your conscience is well formed, you can trust it; but if you have a deformed or doubtful conscience, it is best not to follow it! A police officer sees a weapon being drawn on him, yet makes a split second decision to hold his fire until he can determine whether the assailant, who looks to be only fourteen years old, is truly dangerous or merely frightened. With the thinnest slice of information, he decides not to shoot, and the kid drops the gun at his feet. [7] This was an instance of good rapid cognition based on years of experience and good judgment.

"Every moment — every blink — is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction," writes Gladwell. [8]

This point is echoed by the Catechism, which tells us that we must always seriously seek what is right and good, and try to discern God's will in our lives. To this end, we must prudently interpret the data of experience, seek wise advice, and pray for the help of the Holy Spirit. [9] The Holy Spirit works in us, when we are in the state of grace, by "mobilizing the whole being, with all its sorrows, fears and sadness" [10] –as well as its desire, love and joy — toward the ultimate good, the source of all goodness, God himself.



[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little Brown & Co., 2005 page 3 ff.

[2] Ibid., page 61ff.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1763.

[4] Ibid. no. 1770.

[5] Fr. Emmerich Vogt, O.P., "The Passions: A guide for Understanding Your Feelings and Emotions." The 12-Step Review, 2000.

[6] Ibid, no. 1771.

[7] Gladwell, op. cit., p. 241.

[8] Ibid, p. 241

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1787-88.

[10] Ibid., no. 1769.


Laraine Bennett is a freelance writer with articles published in Catholic Faith & Family, Ligourian, New Oxford Review and the National Catholic Register. Together with her husband, Art, she co-authored The Temperament God Gave You (Sophia Institute Press, 2005). Laraine has a BA in Philosophy from Santa Clara University and an MA in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Laraine and her husband have been married for 28 years and have lived in California and Germany, and are presently living in Northern Virginia. They have four children — one of each temperament. She can be reached at [email protected].


This article is reprinted with written permission of 4marks Magazine and is part of the network which offers a variety of online services to Catholics, including our online Daily Catechism program, Catholic Trivia, Temperament Test and single Catholic service. To learn more about any of our services or how 4marks is helping Catholics connect online in order to deepen their faith offline visit



Laraine Bennett has a master's degree in Philosophy and is the Communications Manager for the National Council of Catholic Women. She has co-authored 6 books with her husband, Art, and one solo book, A Year of Grace: 365 Reflections for Caregivers. She helped create the popular The Bennetts reside in Northern Virginia, have been married for 40 years and have 4 adult children and 3 grandchildren.

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