Should You Really Listen to Your Gut?

A new book says you can't count on your gut instinct to protect you from danger.

Mary Ellen O'Toole worked for the FBI for 25 years, serving as a criminal profiler for more than half that time. During her career, she studied notorious serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists, in cases involving everyone from Elizabeth Smart to the Unabomber. Now an instructor at the FBI National Academy, where she teaches a course to police called "Interviewing of Psychopaths," she has also written a book, Dangerous Instincts. Her thesis: Our gut can't always keep us safe from harm. Here's her best advice.

Forget your sixth sense. In times of danger, people often rely on something deep inside themselves — "this mystical sense," says O'Toole. "But our gut does not always serve us well in times of fear: For instance, in a school shooting, people often will hide under their desks. They'll seek cover. But that may not be the best course of action. The best thing to do might be to find any kind of exit, to run, and to put time and distance between you and the shooter." The key to staying as safe as possible at any given time is to be in tune with your environment, says O'Toole. "Flight attendants point out the exits, and people have heard the announcement over and over, so they keep reading or continue a conversation. But there is a reason for those announcements: The flight attendants don't want you to run aimlessly throughout the plane when there's an emergency. They want you to target an exit," she says. "Always be aware of where your exits are — at a football game, in a pub. In times of crisis, your ability to think critically is going to go out the window, so you don't want to wait until then to start looking for an exit."

Don't be ruled by emotion. When people let others into their lives — or into their homes — they often make decisions based on sentimental themes, says O'Toole. "People say, 'I'm a good judge of character.' But what is that based on? They'll say, 'We just connected.' Again, these are emotional, untested themes, and we use them to make big decisions," she says. "People avoid doing due diligence because they think that's a safety net. Our read of people often comes down to what's most superficial: He seems friendly; they drive a nice car. We use completely meaningless indicators to tell us that someone is safe. I can't tell you how many times I've had witnesses tell me about a criminal, 'He just snapped!' Really? And then you'll hear: 'Well, he did have a bit of a temper.' They'll say there were red flags that were just ignored."

Always ask questions. How do you decide whom you can trust? Go on a subtle hunt for information, says O'Toole. "Ask the neighbors friendly, open-ended questions. If you're having a couch delivered, call the company and ask: Who exactly is coming? If they say the delivery guy will be alone and he shows up with two other people, call the store and reschedule. It's the kind of situation where you're vulnerable — you want that couch, so you might not make a wise decision," she says. "My book is all about how to be driven by smart decision-making, not emotion."

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