“It just felt right”

“Go with your gut”

“That doesn’t sit right with me”

“Follow your instincts”

“Butterflies in my stomach”

“I have a hunch”

If you’ve ever said, or heard any of the above phrases, you’ll know the mysterious feeling that is being referred to is what’s commonly known as gut instinct.

This is a colloquial term used to describe the sensation of intuitively knowing, or feeling something, without an (obvious) rational basis.

But can you trust this feeling?  Is it useful?  You might feel comfortable ‘going with your gut’ for personal decision making, or minor life choices...but what about at work?

The role of ‘the feeling’ in the recruitment process is especially controversial. We are not supposed to be trusting our intuition when choosing candidates to progress, or making decisions about who to hire. In fact, organisations and recruiters put mechanisms in place to ensure that those doing the hiring are NOT relying on feelings about candidates, but instead accessing a set of empirical evidence, compiled during the process, on which to make decisions. Yet it’s certainly not uncommon to hear discussions about trusting intuitions, or ‘getting a feeling’  in reference to candidates.

So what role should ‘gut instinct’ play, if any?

To answer this, we unpick what gut instinct actually IS, beyond being simply a metaphor.  With foundations in psychology and neurology; here’s (part of) what constitutes gut instinct:

Subconscious Processing

Human brains constantly process information, much of which occurs below the level of our conscious awareness. This processing can reach a threshold of certainty and relevance, and surface as a ‘feeling’ and offering insights that haven't been fully processed at the conscious level. This can be especially common in situations where we have a lot of experience, allowing our brain to quickly recognise patterns, based on past knowledge.

Emotional Intelligence

Gut feelings are also closely linked to emotional intelligence, arising from an ability to read, and interpret emotional cues in a situation, which might not be overtly evident.


There’s been a lot in the press in recent years linking our actual physical gut to…well it seems like just about everything!  The enteric nervous system in our gastrointestinal tract is even called the ‘second brain’ because it can operate independently of the brain, and spinal cord, and plays a role in our emotional experiences. It’s a complex system of about 100 million nerves which communicates with the brain; these signals can influence our mood, and our decision making processes.

Rapid Cognition

Rapid cognition is a process where the brain makes quick judgments and decisions based on limited information, with little or no effort, often without the individual's conscious awareness. It is sometimes referred to as ‘system 1’ thinking, from the behavioural economic studies of renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He describes two systems of thought; fast and slow. Gut instincts are often attributed to this fast, rapid-cognition system

It’s scientific, kind of.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot of science at play that contributes to gut instinct (and much more than we have space to cover here) which is a sign that perhaps it does make sense to pay SOME attention to those feelings. Gut instincts can on occasion, be surprisingly accurate.  But they are not infallible.  They are influenced by biases, emotions and experiences which means of course, that they may lead to erroneous conclusions.

In a work context

In summary, gut instinct is a complex interplay of subconscious brain activity, emotional intelligence, biological signals, and learned experiences. Thus, gut feelings may provide some insights but taking into account the huge potential for error, you can’t rely on them.  

We say, when it comes to recruitment, don’t go rogue!  You can’t pick a great candidate based on feelings alone. Sure, let your instincts provide with some direction, or prompts. However, our recommendation is to put efforts into a well-designed recruitment process, structured evaluation methods including behavioural based interviewing, testing and assessments, and then consider and work through all the factors, using rational analysis and critical thinking.

Need help ?

You can definitely rely on Deanne & the team here at The People Place to do recruitment the right way—and to find you great candidates. Those many years of experience have honed our collective gut instinct, plus we have all the best practice tools & methodologies! Feel free to reach out if you need support with any recruitment-related activities, call us on +64 9 300 7224 or email hello@thepeopleplace.co.nz