Why you should listen to your heart

Follow your heart… Trust your instincts… Listen to your feelings… You know deep inside what is right…etc

- Most people

Humans ongoingly urge and celebrate others’ trust of their ‘heart’ over their ‘head’. Why?

One explanation is that it’s just good advice. I admit I haven’t seen any research on this, though if it were true I would expect to have seen some evidence. If overly emotional people did better on IQ tests for instance we would probably have heard about it, but perhaps hearts aren’t good at that sort of question. They also aren’t good at engineering or cooking or anything else concrete and testable that I can think of except socializing. More people struggle against their inclination to do what they feel like than struggle to do more of it. Perhaps you say it isn’t their heart that likes masturbating and reading Reddit, but that really makes the advice ‘do what you feel like, if it’s admirable to me’, which is pretty vacant. Perhaps listening to your heart means doing what you want to do in the long term, rather than those things society would have you do, which are called ‘reason’ because society has bothered making up reasons for them. This seems far fetched though.

Another explanation is that we want to listen to our own hearts, i.e. do whatever we feel like without having to think of explanations agreeable to other people. We promote the general principle to justify using it to our hearts’ content. However if we are doing this to fool others, it would be strange for our strategy to include begging others to follow it too. Similarly if you want to defect in prisoners’ dilemmas, you don’t go around preaching that principle. A better explanation would explain our telling others, not our following it.

Another explanation is that this is only one side of the coin. The other half the time we compel people to listen to reason, to think in the long term, to avoid foolish whims. This seems less common to me, especially outside intellectual social groups, but perhaps I just notice it less because it doesn’t strike me as bad advice.

My favorite explanation at the moment is that we always do what our hearts tell us, but explain it in terms of abstract fabrications when our hearts’ interests do not align with those we are explaining to. Rationalization is only necessary for bad news. Have you ever said to someone, ‘I really would love to go with you, but I must submit to sensibility and work on this coursework tonight, and in fact every night for the foreseeable future’? We dearly want to do whatever our listener would have, but are often forced by sensible considerations to do something else. It never happens the other way around. ‘I’m going to stay in tonight because I would just love to, though I appreciate in sensibleness I should socialize more’. Any option that needs reasons is to be avoided. ‘Do what your heart tells you’ means ‘Do what you are telling me your heart tells you’, or translated further, ‘Do what my heart tells you’.

19 responses to “Why you should listen to your heart

  1. OK, then the question becomes: *why* do we usually want others to do what they say their heart tells them, rather than what they say their head tells them? It seems the key is that we rarely make up excuses saying our heart won’t let us do what our head wants. But why that? My guess: we usually know more about what their heart wants than what their head wants. So if they were going to lie they could just lie about what their head wants – no need to invoke the heart.

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    • The first part is what I was saying, unclearly it seems. As for why we don’t make up excuses about our hearts disallowing what our head wants, perhaps because we feel more responsible for what our hearts want – our heads are supposed to follow impersonal reason, which is not our fault. We claim responsibility for the likable desire, and invoke external forces to prevent us from it.

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  2. Obviously different people interpret these aphorisms in different ways, but I personally find meaning in these quotes when I interpret them as saying something along the lines of “avoid self-effacing ideologies.” Speaking for myself, I find it tempting as a rationalist to deal with difficult decisions by abstracting away from my own idiosyncratic desires and imagining what a moral saint would do, and then following through with that. But I’ve found that even if I can make the “right choice” as defined by this criteria, I might end up deeply unhappy with the result on a level most unbecoming of a moral saint, and this ends up inhibiting my actions in other ways. So I take “follow your heart” to mean, at least, that one should be able to compromise with one’s inclinations that deviate from those embodied by an ideal moral saint.

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  3. At least for instincts, I think that there actually is evidence that people make better decisions when they trust their “gut.”

    See, for example: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122632059/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    You may find my summary useful. Here:

    http://andymckenzie.blogspot.com/2009/10/conscious-thinking-doesnt-help-as-much.html

    So maybe people are just equating “heart” with “gut”, as in non-conscious decision-making.

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  4. Western culture is a very individualistic culture which glorifies rebellion and fighting against impossible odds. There is far more focus on the hero who overcomes adversity than the hundred would-be heroes that were felled by adversity. In this culture, “follow your heart” means to make the irrational gamble.

    Asian cultures emphasize the collective more and they’re more likely to focus on the safe path. Follow your heart has much less meaning there.

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  5. As someone who teaches logic, I think one reason most people should trust anything but their reasoned judgments of what’s sensible is that they’re absolutely terrible at conscious reasoning. Andrew’s links (and numerous other studies) bear out that it’s not just my students. Indeed, even those with extensive training in logic, or in statistics (which is really the biggest problem area), remain disturbingly vulnerable to all sorts of huge biases in their conscious reasoning. Unless you’re doing it very carefully, reasoning seems to usually end up becoming rationalization.

    It may also be worth noting, related but somewhat contrary to Xianhang’s point, that in Western culture, “rational” has come to be associated with “serving shallow self-interest.” No doubt it would be better if people didn’t have such a confused idea of rationality, but this may be a further source of people making bad decisions when they try to do what they think is the rational thing.

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    • There seems to be an agreement as to what “rational” means to each person, but the word remains undefined and is malleable in its scope and extension. Without a brittle definition the “rational” will always be complicated. May I suggest; Rational: that which adheres to the rules that iteratively bind Form, Function, Cause and Effect into the Universe

      If statistics worked, we would live in a perfect
      world. I am uncertain what the problem is with the students. However, I would suggest that it has something to do with their intuition. Maybe getting them to ignore that would help somehow.

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  6. Maybe the heart is stupider than the head, so we’re more often tempted to fool someone by appealing to their heart. Similarly, we’d prefer to negotiate with the less sharp partner in a business partnership.

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  7. After the fact, people look at all the warring instincts they had, and label the one that turned out to be right their “heart”.

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  8. You don’t like the idea that listening to one’s heart is a nice way of saying one will be emotional & irrational, and is a commitment device?

    One listens to one’s heart on matters of small and medium importance; Hollywood aside, one doesn’t listen to one’s heart while pondering existential threats.

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  9. Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Hearts Vs. Heads

  10. “My favorite explanation at the moment is that we always do what our hearts tell us, but explain it in terms of abstract fabrications when our hearts’ interests do not align with those we are explaining to.”

    When it becomes clear that all experience is polymorphic, persistently attributed, it leads to the idea that the whole truth of any given experience is amorphous. The rise of novelty (experience) disables the intrinsic condition in humans and the need to have symmetry in our lives leads us to seek a balancing point. Lucky of us, we have the ability to reflect.

    “Rationalization is only necessary for bad news”

    Are you certain?

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  11. seems to me to be just risk-maximizing signaling.

    Many decisions have risks associated with them. This basically is a push to ignore more risks. Not every situation is a prisoner’s delemia, and often it can be quite good to encourage risk in others, when benefits are diffuse but risks are personalized.

    Think of your friend applying for a new, better paid job. If they get it you both win, they because they have a better job, and you because you have a wealthier friend. If the get rejected however, the sting of the rejection falls almost solely on the person who tried.

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  12. The bible says the heart is deceitful above all things, therefore we should not listen to everything our hearts say because it is where evil lives within us. But then what should we listen to?

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  13. Pingback: Achieving Peace Within – 8 Simple Activities To Help You Gain Inner Peace | Relaxation, Inner Peace, And Calmness

  14. Hi Katja, great and thought provoking post. mBraining says that its best to listen to the head, heart and gut all aligned together, because…

    Neuroscience research over the last decade has uncovered that we have complex, adaptive and functional neural networks or ‘brains’ in our heart and gut regions. And behavioral modeling research over the last 2.5 years, informed by the neuroscience, has shown that our heart and gut brains have very specific intelligences, functions and core competencies. And when you put all three brains into a powerful state called ‘coherence’ and align them together, then an incredible wisdom emerges that taps into the innate intuition and intelligence of all three brains.

    We’ve created a very simple yet powerful model for doing this, and we’ve described it in our book mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff. If you are at all interested, take a look at http://www.mbraining.com

    People who have been trained as Coaches in the mBraining model are reporting profound transformations in the people they are coaching around the world. So truly, mBraining says, don’t just use your head or your heart, align all three (head, heart and gut) and tap into your true intelligence for wise and generative decisions :-)

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  15. Exceptional post. Never knew this, appreciate it for letting me know.

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