When to Trust Your Gut (and When Not to) When Making Critical Loss Prevention Decisions

Some call it the initial sniff test. Others use a less-flattering term to describe it. It’s your initial gut reaction to a new, unresearched idea. Does your instinct say “yea” or “nay?” In many business contexts, million-dollar decisions – including loss prevention decisions – are made with no further deliberation.

Now, I’m a researcher, so you may assume that my answer to “When should you trust your gut?” is: “Never! Always do research!” Trust me, I’m tempted to say that. But prescribing research for every loss prevention decision just isn’t realistic for a few reasons.

Cognitive shortcuts are incredibly important for our survival and sanity. We simply don’t have the cognitive resources to invest large amounts of time and effort (and money) into every single decision we make.

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But sometimes, we choose to invest that time and effort on deciding on what brand of toothpaste to buy and forego it for a multi-million-dollar loss prevention business decision. So when should we trust our gut in a business setting? Let’s start with the more entertaining question: when NOT to trust your gut.

When Not to Trust Your Gut

When your opinion stinks. Opinions: Everyone is entitled to one, but they’re certainly not all created equal. It’s all about probability here. Sure, your grandpa’s hunch that chewing tobacco is good for you, based on the fact that he uses it daily and is still kickin’, might be spot on. But because he’s basing it on an anecdote, lovingly known in the science community as a sample size of one, and not on stronger evidence, I don’t like his chances.

That’s the problem with gut feelings; we’re pretty convinced that they’re right. We tend not to seek further information. We tend not to bother seeing what research is out there. Or worse, we selectively cherry-pick loss prevention research that confirms our original position while writing off research that contradicts it, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. The more research we review in an unbiased way, the higher the probability is that we’re getting it right.

When defending your opinion makes you angry. We’re pretty good at knowing when we’re fooling ourselves, or trying to fool others, and it makes us feel guilty. It’s a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, which is when we attempt to believe two contradictory things simultaneously (“I was wrong,” and  “I was right,” for example), and we seek to relieve the resulting discomfort. Feelings of guilt, like from skipping our homework, or feelings of incompetence, cause a ton of cognitive dissonance. The hallmark responses to cognitive dissonance are projecting, anger, and avoidance. If you hate talking about an opinion you hold, or often get angry while doing so, it may merit further evaluation.

When the decision is important and you can get more information. If science has taught us anything, it’s that information is power. Sample size, sample size, sample size. Find as much information as you can. Find every bit of relevant research that’s been done. If there isn’t good research, sanction your own research. The scientific process works. It’s why we don’t have polio anymore.

When to Trust Your Gut

When there’s no other information available. First impressions are important for a reason: They’re sometimes the only data point available. It turns out we’re pretty good at gauging people using our first impressions. So if all you have to go on when making a loss prevention business decision is your gut, it’s better than nothing. This only applies when sanctioning your own research isn’t an option, and when you’ve double-checked that there isn’t any good research out there already.

When the decision lacks consequence. Think toothpaste here. Just pick one. Spend your time elsewhere.

When it’s a tie. When all your other sources of information add up to a stalemate, go with your gut to break the tie. But make sure it’s really a stalemate – no cheating!

Parting Thoughts

In the business world, deliberation is often synonymous with waffling or weakness. We expect our loss prevention leaders to make decisions quickly and confidently and to stick by them. We even expect our leaders to use their gut, seeing the need for outside consult as a weakness.

Well, move your science lab into the basement if you must. Do your Google Scholar searches of past research in private browsing sessions, erasing your history as you go. Pretend your informed opinions are your gut reactions, and deliver them confidently and recklessly. Do it quietly, do it privately, but please, please do your research on important loss prevention decisions.

This article was first published in 2017 and updated in September of 2020.

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