A quick, heartwarming story that shows why you should trust your gut instinct.

Who says that a bank – and its customers – can not be inspirational? Banks aren’t thought of as the most trustworthy institutions in the world, and for a good reason (see the recession of 2009.)

Hancock Bank isn’t near as big a name as Chase or Wells Fargo, which makes for a better story. And what they did for desperate people in desperate circumstances was nothing short of heartwarming.

Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, hit Gulfport, Mississippi especially hard. One of the biggest problems people were having was, of course, lack of electricity. Lack of power impacts social infrastructures, including banks.

People couldn’t access their money. Hancock Bank’s management decided to do something about it.

Representatives set up folding tables all around the city, giving $200 to every person who asked; provided they were willing to write down their name, address and social security number on a piece of scrap paper. Over $40 million was distributed. The percentage of people who paid back their debt: 99.5 percent.

No collateral, no paperwork, and no credit checks. Just trust, a virtue that can be described as a “gut instinct.”

The power (and science) of instinct

“It’s great to have a bright, analytical brain, but at the end of the day, the stomach is the smartest organ in the body.” ~ Shelly Levitt

Melody Wilding, a licensed therapist and professor of human behavior at Hunter College, says, “Trusting your gut is trusting the collection of all your subconscious experiences.”

For some people, the notion of “going with your gut” is the antithesis of rationality. However, this is a gross misperception. Acting on gut instincts is a reflective behavior. Again, it is a reflective behavior, not an impulsive one.

Gary Klein, Ph.D. and author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, defines gut instinct as: “(The) way we translate our experience into judgment and actions.”


Wilding explains, “You have to create space to listen to what your gut is saying.”

How, then do we sharpen our gut instincts? By incorporating three habits:

gut instinct

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is defined as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.” Going a step further, it’s having a clear perception of strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.

Self-awareness is essential for developing keen gut instincts. For without self-awareness it is impossible to interpret the meaning behind your thoughts, emotions – and, yes – your instincts.

Which begs the question, how do you develop self-awareness?

“Do a body scan of what’s going on for you. You may think ‘I feel nervous right now,’ or ‘I feel like I’m (unsure) what’s coming next.’ Use these skills of emotional labeling to get in touch with what you gut might be saying to you,” says Wiling.

2. Have time to reflect

According to science, our feelings are not random. Instead, they originate from a construct of something observable. To convert this construct into something measurable and actionable, we must reflect.

In other words, instincts are often messy pieces of information. They must be “mined” to determine their worth.

“What we label a gut feeling is always based on a set of variables that we haven’t spent time articulating,” explains Bruce Pfau, a psychologist and senior partner at KPMG. “Only when you bring those facts into the light of day can you analyze them objectively and dispassionately and move on to making a good decision.”

3. Be honest

David Desteno, Ph.D., and author of The Truth About Trust says “You’re not as trustworthy as you think. Neither am I. I know because we ask everyday folks in our lab studies if they consider themselves honest. Almost everyone says yes, but his or her actions don’t sync up.”

For your instincts to produce good results – or, at the very least, prevent bad ones – you must overcome the natural tendency of wishful thinking. Some of us have a devious talent for rationalizing our own bad behavior. Marriages, careers, lives, have been ruined because the individual coaxed themselves into thinking their faulty instincts actually had merit.

We’re all good people at our core. In fact, this positive human trait is what makes instincts so valuable. This good nature makes us feel guilty when we think about doing something dishonest – and then change our course of action.

Desteno explains the positive side of this trait: “Recognizing feelings of shame and guilt – instead of brushing them aside – can give us the opportunity to resist the fling in the moment. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and listen to what your emotions might be telling you.”

When we hold ourselves accountable for being honest, our thoughts, feelings, and instincts are more valuable; making it possible that we’ll create something wonderful.