Trusting Your Instincts

To a certain extent, it makes sense to trust your instincts while parenting; after all, many of us seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to our children and their safety. However, what we call “instincts” can lead us in the wrong direction. A case in point is that my instincts tell me flying on an airplane isn’t safe. I get nervous when I have to fly, and I’m particularly edgy during takeoff, landing, and any turbulence. I’m completely at ease in a car, however, despite the fact that I’m about 625,000 times more likely to die in a car crash (per mile driven) than in a plane crash (per mile flown). Sometimes our instincts steer us wrong.

If you think about it, we can’t possibly have “instincts” about the comparative safety of automobile and plane travel; these modes of transport are new in the grand scheme of human evolution. True instincts are reserved for behaviors we evolved to exhibit. They include reflexes such as the rooting of a newborn, and more complex activities — such as performance of the sexual act — that we don’t need to be taught. Similarly, while we have some true parenting instincts — the drive to protect a newborn from harm, for instance, or to pick up a crying baby and soothe it in any way necessary — most of our parenting behavior is learned, and is in response to relatively new developments in human society. In parenting, “trust your instincts” would be more properly phrased, “listen to your gut.”

Unfortunately, while your instincts are rarely wrong, your gut is far more fallible. My gut is wrong about the safety of my car, for instance. In a 1987 article published in the journal “Science,” researcher Paul Slovic notes that humans are notoriously bad at perceiving risk accurately, which explains why I’m not the only one who fidgets on an airplane. It seems that humans perceive activities as riskier when they’re new, have the potential for a delayed (as opposed to immediate) effect, aren’t easily observable, are involuntary, and are generally out of our control. Slovic went on to point out that surveyed individuals (including college students and members of the League of Women Voters) ranked nuclear power (in any permutation) as the most dangerous (number 1) of a group of 30 activities and technologies, while experts ranked it as number 20 out of 30, or less likely to cause your death than riding on a train. Similarly, college students ranked recreational swimming as the least risky of the activities, while experts ranked it as number 10 out of 30, or slightly riskier than private aviation, and quite a bit riskier than being a firefighter. On a side note, experts ranked electrical power as number 9 out of 30, but it’s nuclear plants we all tend to worry about, despite the much lower actual risk associated with them.

The point here is that many of the parenting choices we have to make (Should I vaccinate my children? Crib or co-sleep? Home birth or hospital delivery?) are ones our evolutionary ancestors wouldn’t have had to deal with, so we have no real instincts where these decisions are concerned. Instead, many parents rely upon what is — no matter what you call it — nothing more than a gut feeling to make critical parenting calls. As Slovic demonstrates so eloquently, however, our guts can err pretty dramatically.

Am I advocating ignoring gut feelings when it comes to parenting? Not at all. I am, however, suggesting that it’s a good idea to take a gut feeling with a grain of salt, at least until — and unless — you’re able to back it up with evidence.


Do you make more evidence-based or gut-based parenting decisions? Leave a comment below!



Slovic, P. (1987). Perception of Risk. Science, 236, 280-285.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Katy Crookston
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 15:56:51

    Nice blog Kirstin. I think your blog will fill a void created by so many mommy-blogs. I’d love to read a more scientific side of parenting my children.


  2. Juana
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:08:00

    Pretty insightful. Thanks!


  3. NaturalMamaNZ
    Oct 01, 2011 @ 03:05:54

    Great article, enjoyed 🙂


  4. Catherine
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 18:56:16

    Love this article. It is the basis of my entire blog….with facts :). I will tweet this. Thanks!


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