The art of good decisions
Good the decisions, bad decisions, we all make both of them. A lot. Some psychologists even say we make about 35000 decisions a day, even though that’s highly debated. But, if you take that number as a guideline, it’s a miracle that some are even decent! How do we even manage to make so many decisions a day?
Taking some shortcuts
Not every decision is made with spreadsheets and elaborate plannings. A lot aren’t even made consciously at all actually! We mostly count on instincts to get us through the day and those instincts tend to form rules of thumb that we’re following. Those rules of thumb are called heuristics and cognitive biases. We use them whenever we don’t have the time or the mental capacity to think the decision through, or when we decide it’s just not worth thinking about. There are many, many heuristics and cognitive biases and I can’t discuss them all, but I’ll try to tell you about my favourite ones. The ones that help us out the most, but also how they can get us into trouble.
The confirmation bias
Let’s start with one that can get us into trouble, which is the confirmation bias. This bias makes us look for the things we expect. This is a really important one when we’re trying to concentrate or find something. When we’re trying to find a red shirt in a really full closet, it saves us a lot of time that we can filter out all the blue, green and even oranges and pinks, so we only see the red. This is when the confirmation bias is really good. In more complicated cases, it’s also helpful when the thing you’re expecting is actually there.
However, it can become a problem when it isn’t. It’s a bias that should always be on the minds of scientists, especially psychologists, since it’s less of an exact science. You wouldn’t be the first scientist to find evidence that supports your theory, when actually it’s not there at all. Other times it can get us into trouble is when we let our emotions run free. Imagine you have a strange rash, but you’re really, REALLY scared of needles and hospitals. When you’re looking online for what it could be, you’re more likely to say it looks more like that innocent, small rash. This is, because it’s more like what you hope for in comparison to the one that’ll make you go to the doctor, even though objectively you should. This bias can thus lead to you not going to get it checked, and that could actually be fatal.
The availability heuristic
This is one of the most logical heuristics ever. This heuristic comes about especially when time and mental energy is low. When this is the case, we tend of the things that are on top of our mind. For instance, when someone during this pandemic tells you that someone has died, your mind immediately tends to go to the virus. This happens, even though there are still many other things killing people. And when I say this, your mind is likely to go to other diseases, but how about old age and car crashes? It’s all about what’s readily ‘available’ in your mind.
Although this heuristic is usually very helpful in thinking logically, this can prevent us from being creative, since creativity is often created by the unexpected and unusual. However, this heuristic is really practical when you have to do stuff quickly. For instance, when you need to pack a quick overnight bag, you are less likely to forget your pyjamas or toothbrush. Those things are probably saved near your mental image of a sleepover. It’s a very good heuristic to use every now and then, but if you need inspiration or creative solutions, you might want to give your mind all the time and focus it needs to think beyond the expected.
The familiarity heuristic
This heuristic is sort of a cute one. It makes us like and even love what is familiar to us. It’s why your mom’s apple pie calms you down or why the smell on your boyfriends shirt is easing you when he’s not around. In the wild, unknown things are risky and are therefore good to prevent. When we know what or who someone is we at least know what to expect, the good and the bad.
But as with every heuristic, there is also a nastier side and it often shows up in bad relationships. You know how they say that every girl seeks a boy who reminds her of her dad? Well that might be true, but that’s only a good thing if you had a nice dad. This heuristic is one of the reasons why people who’ve been mistreated often get partners who aren’t too nice as well or why they start to mistreat their own children. Although they recognize the signs and know best how it can ruin someone, they still go back to those situations. This is probably because it feels safer than normal relationships to them. This shows you how incredibly strong this heuristic rules our behaviour and how hard it is to beat. Although this doesn’t excuse mistreatment of others in any way, it explains it a lot. So, when you keep getting into the same bad situations, look inside yourself and find out if maybe, just maybe, you’re looking them up. This doesn’t mean it is your fault, but knowing these patterns can help you avoid them.
Cognitive dissonance falls under the the category of cognitive biases. It’s an interesting one to me, since it’s a lot more subtle than the other ones mentioned. When you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, you feel a mismatch between who you believe yourself to be and how you’re behaving. This leads us to want to fix the mismatch by either adjusting how we see ourselves or adjusting/explaining away our behaviour.
Most of us see ourselves as nice people. So, when we do something not so nice, there is cognitive dissonance, especially when someone points us to the fact that we’re not being nice. So, then we can do one out of two things. We can either accept that we are maybe not as nice as we thought or find a reason why it’s okay that we’re not being nice. More often than not, we prefer the same option. This is why we can get (unreasonably) mad at others, even more than we already were for the initial reason. Saying sorry can feel almost impossible in these cases, which is how conflicts escalate.
But why do we do this? Why is cognitive dissonance useful? It is, because it protects our self-esteem! When we would have to alter our self-image every time we do something good or bad, we’d get really mentally unstable. Cognitive dissonance is in this case very important to keep our self-esteem relatively the same.
Rounding it all up
As you can see, all these heuristics and cognitive biases are generally pretty handy. However, they are sometimes also horribly impractical or even dangerous. If you’re aware of them, you can stay more in charge of these things when difficult decisions need to be made. Let these shortcuts guide you through the easier ones though for a more easy life with less decisions. What are mistakes that biases or heuristics created for you or are you generally in charge of them? Let me know in the comments below!
Lots of love,
LisaHome » Mind »