Go With Your Gut

Gut instincts actually originate as signals from the brain; they help us to make quick decisions.


A cop's primary responsibility is to return home safely to his family each day. Forget about everything else people may tell you; it's your job to be safe so that your spouse, children, parents, friends and colleagues continue to be blessed with you in their lives. One of the ways you can facilitate your safety is to follow your gut instinct. There are varieties of terms people use to describe gut instinct. It can also be referred to as: common sense, gut feeling, gut reaction, intuition, rationality, or doing the right thing. This phenomenon is a result of experiences we have learned throughout our lives, both on the job and off.

Common sense tells us that it's not a good idea to go down a dark alley; it's not wise to leave a new car parked in a bad neighborhood; it's foolish to run a marathon not having trained for it. Your gut tells you all of the aforementioned ideas are imprudent. Conversely, your gut also tells you things which are wise or are the right thing to do: aiding an injured person, returning a lost wallet, or helping an elderly person up or down a flight of stairs. These are all a result of feelings we have because of things we've see or done on a regular basis which cause us to react without having to think about them first. Gut instinct is a valuable tool for the cop on the street, particularly as it relates to action versus reaction. The quicker we can act, the better our chances of surviving.

Consider what happens when you make a traffic stop and approach the driver. Smart cops know it's imperative that we see the driver's hands. If we are unable to see them both, or if we command the driver to put his hands on the dash and he refuses, our gut tells us we're in danger. It's a product of our experience and common sense. To irrationally ignore that signal is to put ourselves in harm's way. If we have that same driver out of his vehicle and he darts his eyes around quickly, our gut tells us he's getting ready to bolt. We've experienced that type of behavior before; we know what it means.

Our brain actually catalogues similar incidents and circumstances and stores them like files in a cabinet. Things we encounter on a frequent or regular basis: street stops, certain gestures suspects give when answering questions, tossing drugs one way and running the other, are all things we see time and again. Our short-term memory has those events stored for quick retrieval. Imagine it as a mental matching game. We observe a certain behavior and our brain matches it with what typically comes next.

Michael Gershon, author of The Second Brain, explains, "The gut itself literally feeds gut feelings; think of butterflies in the stomach when a decision is pending. The gut has millions of nerve cells and, through them, a 'mind of its own.' Still, gut feelings do not originate there, but in signals from the brain." So gut instincts are not something nebulous; they are actual cognition, an important tool allowing us to quickly make a decision.

What about those who lack gut instinct or intuition? "...Intuitions compel us to act in specific ways, and those who lack intuition are essentially cognitively paralyzed." This is the conclusion of Psychologist Antoine Bechara, at the University of Southern California. Bechara studied brain-damaged patients unable to form emotional intuitions when making a decision. Their only option was to make a decision through reasoning while observing the situation. He said, "They ended up doing such a complicated analysis, factoring everything in, that it could take them hours to decide between two kinds of cereal." That amount of time needed to analyze a situation in police work would be disastrous.

The question becomes whether or not to trust your gut instinct. An article in Psychology Today describes intuition as, "...your brain on autopilot, performing its actions of processing information outside of your awareness that it's operating. It's non-conscious thinking." Our job, often times, demands split second decision making. Given that we know from our own experience, and now from authorities in the academic community that gut instincts work in our favor, I will defer to my gut most of the time.

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