How to “Read People” (And what makes some experienced professionals more accurate)

Do years of professional experience improve your “gut instincts” about people?

This seems like it should be true.


Until recently, there hasn’t been much research to answer the question.

(Though there is occasionally some really good research on job interviews and the hiring process).


Most previous research includes younger populations, especially college students, who typically have little or no professional experience.

Are experienced professionals different?


A new series of studies—including more than 500 high-level executives—gives us some useful insights.




People think “gut instincts” are accurate

How do you develop the ability to read a person’s motivations and emotions?

When the researchers surveyed a general population for opinions:

  • 74% thought it would be better to develop your “gut instincts”
  • 26% thought it would be better to learn with a reasoned and systematic approach


If nothing else, “gut instincts” are the more popular choice. People believe that it’s true.


Studying experienced professionals

Are experienced professionals better at “reading people” with their “gut instincts?”

Interestingly enough, three different studies each suggest that the answer is no.


One study found that experienced executives who tend use their “gut instincts” when making decisions were also significantly less accurate at “reading” other executives.


A very similar study with an experimental manipulation had similar findings: When experienced executives were put in a “gut instinct” state of mind, it caused them to become significantly less accurate at “reading” other executives.


And yet another study using a standardized test of emotional intelligence found that the executives who tend use their “gut instincts” were significantly less accurate at “reading people” in general.


Relying on your “gut instincts” is a popular idea.

And people really want to believe that their “gut instincts” will improve with age and experience.

But there is (still) no evidence that it’s really true.

It’s almost always better to pay close attention and think carefully.



Image credits: Paul Hudson, OTA photos

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