Never Trust Your Gut…Unless it Tells You to RUN

“Always trust your gut.”

That’s what common wisdom tells us. We’ve got our built-in Spidey Sense working behind the scenes to protect us, if only we would listen.  We’ve got our Bat Girl or Bat Boy Glasses on, ready to spot the first hint of potential trouble. Or… maybe not.

Victims of all kinds are often blamed for not listening to their intuition or for ignoring their “gut instincts.” Surely we must have known! It would have never happened to them. We even end up blaming ourselves.

So what happened? Where were our gut instincts when we needed them? And if they did sound the alarm, why didn’t we listen?

Psychopaths are very good at disarming our gut instincts. Sometimes, our alarm bells never go off at all. Even if we do have a bad “gut feeling,” they’re skilled at getting us to let down our guard and push our doubts aside.

Many of us have experienced this, or we wouldn’t be here at this website. I’ve heard many former victims berate themselves for not listening to their gut feelings. They either say they did have a bad feeling but ignored it, or they never got bad vibes at all, which they blame on being “out of touch” with their intuition. These ideas point to a fundamental lack of understanding about what manipulation really is and how it works. When someone says, “I just didn’t listen to my intuition, but next time I will,” it means they’re still at risk.

Our ‘guts’ are not reliable indicators of danger or safety. I’m not suggesting that if you have a bad gut feeling about something, you should ignore it. Not at all — that would be foolish. As the title says, “Never Trust Your Gut…Unless it Tells You To Run.” This article is about what to do when your gut stays neutral or when it gives the “all clear.” No one’s gut is right 100% of the time. It’s not reliable enough to base your safety on.

Our gut feelings aren’t some magical, mysterious, and infallible ability we’re born with. In reality, gut feelings are based on our knowledge  and experience. Gut feelings are sudden, strong judgments whose origin we can’t seem to explain. To us, they seem to emerge from a mysterious inner force, but they don’t. Cognitive science found they actually begin with a perception of something outside ourselves, like a facial expression or a tone of voice. From there, our brain goes into a mode of using its built-in shortcuts. Intuition is an unconscious and super-fast associative process in which your brain takes in a situation, does a quick search of its files, and then finds its best match among all of your stored memories and knowledge. Based on what it finds, you ascribe meaning to the situation in front of you.

Here’s an expert who believes she can tell us if we should trust our intuition or not.  Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D. was one of the most senior profilers for the FBI until her retirement in 2009. She has helped capture, interview and understand some of the world’s most infamous serial killers. O’Toole worked on such cases as the Green River Killer, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping and the hunt for the Unabomber.

She is recognized as the FBI’s leading expert in psychopathy, and is at the forefront of mental health and law enforcement efforts to apply the concepts of psychopathy to both violent and white collar offenders. She lectures internationally on the application of the theory of psychopathy to real life situations. She gives lectures on psychopathy at the FBI Academy. She is a Fellow with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. So we may want to listen and consider her point of view when she tells us not to trust our guts. 

O’Toole gives 10 reasons why our gut instincts may be wrong. Here are a few of those reasons:

  • Dangerous people know how to manipulate your gut feelings. She gives the example of Bernie Madoff, who “disarmed potential investors with his charm. He impressed them with his career accomplishments and lulled them with glowing recommendations from other investors who were also unknowingly being conned.”
  • Dangerous people can be much better at reading you than you are at reading them. O’Toole says if you are lonely, for instance, “they will listen and offer their companionship. If you suffer from low self-esteem, they will compliment you and make you feel good about yourself. They know how to get you to feel good about them, even when you shouldn’t.”
  • Our guts cause us to let down our guard for the wrong reasons. She says our guts often cause us to trust people based on superficial details that usually have little to do with true normalcy. “We trust people who look and dress like us, who share our opinions, and who fit in. Dangerous people know this, so they are often masters at appearing normal and likeable and at mirroring our values, likes and dislikes. They dress nicely and keep their houses presentable. Their behavior doesn’t cause internal bells and whistles to go off.” (Read the post on cognitive bias to learn more about this phenomena).
  • Our guts lead us to distrust people for the wrong reasons. “We generally distrust people based on superficial details, too. This is why we often assume that straggly-haired strangers — especially the ones who are socially inept, off-putting and shifty eyed—pose the greatest threat to us. In reality, some of the oddest-looking people pose little to no harm at all.”
  • Our guts encourage us to overlook signs of danger. “Even when the rational signs of danger are evident, it’s our natural inclination to rationalize them away. For instance, you might see a small child screaming in the middle of an airport. You might ignore the child because your gut tells you, “His mother must be somewhere.”

(Learn the rest of the reasons by reading “10 Reasons not to go with your gut.” )

“The man sitting in front of Mary Ellen O’Toole was, she says, a well-mannered guy. “He was low-key. He was nice. He didn’t swear.” He was very proud of his work, which he described in polite, pleasant tones. His name was Gary Ridgway. His other name was the Green River Killer. His work was killing at least 49 women in Washington state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He did it all while maintaining marriages, parenting and church-going, and he seemed very much the word neighbors often use to describe men who turn out to have headless torsos in their freezers. Which is to say, he seemed very, very nice.”

Dangerous Instincts’: FBI profiler explains the dangers of that ‘nice’ neighbor

O’Toole found that the most dangerous criminals are often the ones who come across as the most harmless. That’s how they’re able to continue harming people. She says we put ourselves in physical or emotional danger in dozens of ways every day, from online dating to having someone come to our home to do repairs to hiring a financial planner.

So what should we do? Should we be paranoid and mistrustful of everyone all the time, especially when our guts tell us all is well?

No, says O’Toole. Since our gut feelings aren’t reliable, we need to have another system in place.

Instead of reacting instinctively, she suggests that we follow a process she developed to evaluate threat levels from people and situations over her years with the FBI. She calls the process “SMART:” an acronym for “sound method of assessing and recognizing trouble.” She lays out this method in detail in her book, Dangerous Instincts: Use an FBI Profiler’s Tactics to Avoid Unsafe Situations. Her SMART method teaches you how to determine the true risk any given situation poses, although nothing is foolproof.

When I read this book last year, to tell you the truth I thought she was the most paranoid person on the face of the earth, and I still don’t follow her advice in every situation…but I should. In light of her experience as an FBI profiler, I can understand her mindset and her wisdom. Using the same type of  questioning she teaches to law enforcement, she says we can learn to evaluate boyfriends, contractors, employees, nannies and the like. “This gives people the ability to be their own FBI profiler in everyday life.”

Let’s say you’ve recovered enough to feel ready to do some online dating. How do you assess someone’s online profile, and what questions should you ask? Here’s an example:

“Brad’s profile catches your eye right off. He describes himself as “fit and good-looking,” and says, “I’m looking for the perfect soul mate I can love forever, someone who will love and take care of me.” O’Toole writes about the case of William Michael Barber (the “Don Juan of con”) who romanced victims via dating sites, married them, cleaned out their bank accounts, and then disappeared.

Back to Brad’s profile. There are negative behaviors to watch out for. “If you’re going to be online dating, look at the words in profiles,” she says. Look for lots of I/me statements that could indicate narcissism. And, from the above profile, the guy describing himself as good-looking could be a narcissist, she says. (She also points out that his adoring niece might have written his profile.) Plus, your own vulnerabilities can color your perception of him. If you ignore his initial neediness because you love that he’s always calling and texting to tell you how beautiful you are, you might wake up five years later with a possessive, jealous husband and think it’s a sudden change, O’Toole says. Watch for patterns of behavior or hints about how he acted in past relationships. A line like “I’m not a game-player,” is a red flag. Perhaps, she says, someone else has accused him of that.

Questions she suggests asking include: “What are your biggest concerns about meeting people online?” “When you’ve had good dating experiences, how did they go?” “When you’ve had bad dating experiences, how did those go?” She points out that if he blames all bad dates on the women involved, that’s a red flag.

As one victim said, “You’re not getting it. A con man tells you what you want to hear. There’s no reason to have a gut feeling.”


 Learn more:

4 Reasons You Can’t Trust Your Gut, an article by Laura Vanderkam

♥ Thank you for reading. 



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12 thoughts on “Never Trust Your Gut…Unless it Tells You to RUN”

  1. prinses

    Hi, thanks for the post.
    If People are telling me not to trust MY guts, they are doing the same as the psychopat did
    The gut is always right.
    Only the psychopat is an expert in blurring our view by gaslighting and gut only works in a clear view.
    That ‘s my opinie
    Thank You

    1. Admin

      I think you have misunderstood the idea presented here. You might like to read it again. Take care, Prinses.

  2. Tina Taylor

    What I’ve found helps identify certain bad guys is to watch for dysfunctional habits (not their personality traits). My list on my GeneticPsycho facebook page is in a note called “How to Spot a Pro-Social Psychopath”

    1. Admin

      Thanks. I’ll take a look at it. What do you think of this new “pro-social’ label? It sounds like spin to me. I’m thinking of James Fallon, the neuroscientist who says he’s a “pro-social” “borderline psychopath.” He’s done some pretty anti-social stuff, like taking his unwitting brother into a cave known to harbor the deadly Marburg virus, and taking his young son trout fishing right near a sign that said “Beware of Lions.” He seems to put people into some dangerous situations, and that doesn’t sound very “pro-social” to me. Ditto when he says his wife, children and mother are no different than strangers he meets at a bar, and says “you wouldn’t want to be my friend or my kid…because I’ll just kind of dump you, and not even think about it.”

      1. Tina Taylor

        I don’t think the term Pro-Social is fitting, but it was already in use, so I went with it. It is weird how people comment on James Fallon’s videos about how nice and regular he seems. So blind. So ignorant. Right now, only those of us who have suffered know better and actually hear what he’s saying.

        1. Admin

          It’s so true, Tina, only we hear what Fallon’s really saying, and only we can see past his ‘just-a-regular-guy’ charisma. But the sad thing is people who haven’t experienced what we did fall for this BS and think “These psychopaths aren’t so bad!” This idea is also being spread by Kevin Dutton, in his book “the wisdom of psychopaths,” and now his newest one, “The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.” He’s making a killing. So is Fallon.

          1. Tina Taylor

            Kevin Dutton IS a psychopath. Listen to his word salad on npr,org “Is There Such A Thing As A Good Psychopath?” – He says, about psychopathic traits: “None of these characteristics are inherently bad” and other contradictions.

            1. Admin

              I’ve often thought the same thing. He said his father was a psychopath. I’ll listen to that interview to hone my word-salad-spotting skills. I heard some doosies from my ex, but I want to recognize more subtle examples.

  3. Cheryl

    I agree with princes. I read the article again as you suggested, but I finish with the same response. One example the author gives is about people who dress nicely and keep their homes looking good. But that’s exactly where gut feeling comes into it for me. When everything looks good and I’ve got that “icky” feeling or just the sense that something’s not right, I know it’s my gut telling me the picture doesn’t match the truth. I often ignored my gut when I was younger for reasons connected to that – I would convince myself that I was being silly and not logical. But without fail, when I’ve listened anyway I’ve lived to be thankful and when I’ve ignored it I’ve lived to regret it.

    1. Admin

      I agree, we should never ignore out gut feelings when we’re getting bad vibes about someone.

      I think the misunderstanding is this: The article does *not* say to ignore your gut feelings if they signal danger, which is how Prinses interpreted it. The title is “Never Trust Your Gut…Unless it Tells You to RUN,” It’s not “Never Trust Your Gut.” What it’s about are the times you *don’t* get a bad gut feeling — Should you trust someone because of that, or should you get more information?

      (If Prinses’ gut is so infalliable, how did she end up being duped by a psychopath???)

      For example, should a mother hire a person to take care of her child simply on the basis of what her gut tells her? If her gut says everything’s OK, should she not check references, etc.? If her gut feeling about a potential sitter is bad, then by all means it should end right there. But should she trust her gut to the extent that she leaves her child in this person’s hands, without doing anything to validate if this person is safe?

      Some people have better intuition than others, but no one’s gut instincts are right 100% of the time. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Agreed,,,,,,,,I find that my GOOD gut instincts are the ones to trust. If that good gut instinct is not there then that is a red flag that I will NEVER ignore again. I never had that feeling with Spathtard, never felt SURE…………….of ANYTHING! I was always wondering, questioning, watching, waiting……….I just did not feel safe, assured, relaxed,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,but he knew how to handle that! Plenty of “I love you’s”, plenty of holding and hugging, plenty of always being with me. he kept the hook set deep in my oldest wounded place. and it worked. What an ASSHAT! MFERPOS!

    1. Admin

      That’s the thing…they are good at disarming our instincts from the start, or making us doubt them later on. But now we know.

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