Why you keep making poor ‘snap’ decisions

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Let’s admit it, we’ve all had that time in our life when we look back at something and think, “How could I have been so dumb?” Well, in this article, I will try to break it down for you by sharing a few facts from the world of Psychology.

To begin with, we have two systems for judgment and decision making (Chaiken and Trope 1999), namely, the ‘automatic’ system and the ‘reflective’ system. The automatic system comes in to play when we need to make fast intuitive decisions, for example, making an emergency brake if a child suddenly appears in front of our car. This system is effortless, uncontrolled, fast, associative and unconscious. On the other hand, the reflective system is a more controlled and effortful way of processing information to make decisions. It makes deductions, rationally and logically, whilst allowing us to be self-aware that we are going through this process to make a decision. This system comes in to play when we make ‘big’ decisions such as the house we want to buy, the university we want to go to, our career goals, etc.

So which system is it that comes in to play when we make those ‘dumb’ decisions? If your brain is screaming out ‘automatic’ system, then yes, you’ve got it right. However, this automatic system must have some benefits if we still use it after so many years of existing; it probably wouldn’t have evolved if it didn’t have any existential benefits right? Yes, you’re right again! The ‘automatic’ system has a lot of benefits. One of the most important of these is that it is adaptive; it facilitates quick decision making when we are under pressure of time. If you’d wait to calculate the stopping distance before you slam on the brakes, the child would either be under your car or over your bonnet and you’d probably end up in jail! Another major benefit of this system is that is it often highly accurate. It allows us to see something is wrong or something bad is about to happen and permits us to react first and then understand what it was. This is usually known as the ‘scientific version’ of intuition or gut instinct.

But wait, if the automatic system is all this great, how do we end up making some of those ‘dumb’ decisions? Well, there’s a flaw in this system. The automatic system relies on heuristics and biases; these are the cognitive shortcuts that usually lead us to errors. For example, ‘rules of thumb’, may occasionally lead us to inaccurate judgements. Let me simplify it for you further. If you were asked “Are there more words in English that begin with the letter R or are there more words that have R as their third letter?” Most people would answer this question confidently stating that there are more words that begin with the letter R compared to the ones where R is the third letter. However, that’s wrong! There are actually more words that have R as their third letter; this experiment was conducted by Tversky and Kahenman in 1974. The explanation they gave for these results was that we as human beings process information coherently, we store words according to the letter they begin with. As this test is fast paced and the participants have to rely on their ‘gut instinct’ for an answer, the automatic system processes the easily available and biased information from our memory and tells us that there are more words that begin with R. (To be honest, most of us can count more words that begin with R rather than those that have R as their third letter, unless we really concentrate and make use of our reflective system!)

To conclude, our automatic system is highly beneficial, in that it allows us to act instantly when and where we need to. However, whilst most of the time the decisions we make with our automatic system may be accurate, there are flaws in this system and that is what leads us to making those ‘dumb’ decisions that we wonder over at a later stage in our life.

You’d be surprised to find out, that you think you know the factors that play a part in your decision making, but you actually don’t. Well, I guess that’s another article for another day!

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