Trusting Our Gut Instincts—Or Not  

Does the body really have a mind of its own? And if so who is really in charge?
February 28, 2019 Updated: March 19, 2019

The enteric nervous system of our gastro intestines, or gut, has been described as the second brain which gives a different perspective on the idea of a “gut instinct.”

We rely on our gut instincts all the time, as do other mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.  Any sentient being, in fact, must rely on this body-mind feedback if it is to stay alive, which it does in part by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. We are predicting machines, in a sense, anticipating each moment and its potential for pleasure over pain. We automatically and naturally create an amalgam of past experience and present body-mind input to this end.

Much of this capacity is inherent, passed down through the ages.  Tests with babies crawling on a wooden table covered in a large sheet of heavy glass shows they stop at the point at which the glass extends beyond the table.  Though they wouldn’t fall if they were to continue, they see the drop through the glass and  instinct tells them to go no further.

It’s empowering that we can predict danger intuitively,  without having to engage in brain-taxing ratiocination for each and every little step.  But should we ever ignore the signals the body gives us?  Do our gut impulses always lead us in the right direction?

Norbert Schwarz thinks the answer is yes and no. Schwarz is provost professor in the department of psychology and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and a co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center. He  is also the recipient of many awards including, “The Distinguished Contribution Award of Society for Consumer Psychology.” 

Provost Professor Norbert Shwarz (Gus Ruelas)

Schwarz believes it’s important for us to know the source of that body-mind response. It’s especially important for consumers to understand how advertising agencies and marketing firms work in the new millennium and their techniques to manipulate our ‘urges’ for financial or political gain—techniques based on years of his research.

Schwarz has conducted double-blind studies involving what he describes as “embodied metaphors.” We all know that there are contextual factors such as mood, emotions and other such meta-cognitive experiences which can have profound effects on our choices. But Schwarz’s work focuses on the body-mind feedback mechanism: the minute, physical responses to stimuli that unconsciously affect our decisions.

Smells Fishy? Don’t Trust It.

For instance, one of Schwarz’s tests involved subjects who were thought to be entering into a negotiation. One group was presented the facts and the contract in a particular fashion by a particular person.

The second group was presented the facts and the contract in the exact same fashion with the exact same person, but this time there was the faintest scent of fish in the air. The second group was less likely to sign the deal. 

When asked afterward, none were aware they were reacting to the faint smell in the air. It was an embodied metaphor having a subliminal but powerful effect.

Subliminal advertising has been around since 1957, when a market researcher named James Vicary inserted the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie. And those ‘single frame’ words—which appeared just long enough for the subconscious to absorb but not long enough for the viewer to register—did the trick. There was an 18 percent increase in Coke sales and nearly a 60 percent increase in popcorn purchases.

But whereas those early subliminal marketing techniques relied on the written word, today’s marketing industry knows how to use our other senses for a greater effect. The mechanics of our own body movements can trigger strong ‘gut instincts.’ This is the focus of Schwarz’s work.

“Thirty years of psychological and marketing research shows that—independent of semantic meaning and rational thought—our preferences and judgments are heavily influenced by modal, that is, sensory and motor components of our mental representations,” says Dr. Schwarz. “What we perceive through the senses—the body’s minute muscular contractions and other physical responses—though unfelt by us on a conscious level, plays into our ‘choices.’ ”

A Hidden Route to Consumer Preference

Because speech and food ingestion/rejection use the same related movements, those functions can overlap so that inward movements trigger approach impulses toward food while outward movements produce avoidance impulses. 

Schwarz’s studies found that the formation of certain words in the mouth can cause us to desire to eat something, or to reject it. Knowing this, marketing cake becomes easy. But the findings were so surprising that others conducted their own studies to confirm it.

For instance, in 2017, a German Psychologist, Sascha Topolinski, conducted a study wherein test subjects were told that a cake was made by BAKO, a word which engages the lips first, then the tongue, then finally the back of the throat, i.e., front to back, similar to ingestion.

However, when subjects were told that the same cake was made by KABO (articulation starts at the back of the throat and ends at the front of the mouth) they were less likely to purchase the cake. The mechanics used to formulate the word KABO simulate expulsion.

Just hearing the word caused participants to engage in unconscious, silent imitations of actually uttering the name, instigating a series of minute muscle movements, and the ensuing urges.

Even anticipated movement can trigger body feedback that will affect how, or whether, a person decides to act.

Electrodes were placed on the fingers of test subjects asked to sign a petition that was lying on a table with the pen to the left. Left-handed subjects were more likely to sign the petition. However, when the pen was placed to the right of the petition, right-handed subjects were far likelier to sign. 

The electrodes measured the minute muscle movements, the result of a mental simulation of reaching for the pen that happened without their awareness. Clearly, when less physical exertion was anticipated, the subject was more likely to sign. When tennis balls were placed in both hands of the subjects, this effect was gone. There was no greater proclivity to sign, regardless of where the pen lay. Gripping the balls precluded the mental simulation of reaching for the pen.

Perhaps most fascinating is the work done with Botox. 

When we engage with others, mirror neurons in our eyes cause us to involuntarily mimic the expressions of the person we are speaking to, thereby internalizing the other’s emotion. When the typical subject engaged with an angry person, the subject became angry too. This is one reason heated arguments easily escalate.

“People with Botox, however, will register the other person’s anger later and less intensely because the body feedback-mimicry mechanism has been thwarted by the Botox, a neuro-muscular toxin,” Schwarz says.

In 2018, Schwarz and Eryn J. Newman published a paper on how we evaluate information based on sound quality. They found that despite identical content, people evaluated scientific research and the researcher as less favorable when the audio quality of the TV, Radio, or other mode of message delivery, was low. This built on Schwarz’s earlier visual work which found that the same message is less likely to be accepted as true when the print font is difficult to read. 

The Take-Away

We need to know that we are making decisions based on facts, not irrelevant or manipulated body-mind feedback. As long as we’re armed with the knowledge that our gut reactions are not always reliable, we can look more closely at why we’re feeling a certain way, and think twice before we act on those feelings.

Similarly, next time you’re on the phone, ask yourself if your poor phone connection is influencing the listener’s evaluation of you. Maybe it’s time to get a new carrier.

Joni Ravenna is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer. 

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