Human heuristics

Some argue, that we should live our lifes in a rational way, calmly and dispassionately analyzing pros and cons of each situation. While perhaps this is a noble ideal, it is also impossible to attain, and even those people who advocate such way of life are subject to a few quirks and limitations of our minds and brains.

Here are a few important examples that each of us should remember:

  1. It is very hard, if not impossible, to separate our thinking about things into risk and benefit. The general rule of thumb that we employ is that when we consider something to be beneficial, we tend to undervalue the risks associated with it, either ignoring them, diminishing or rationalizing, and vice versa. If a thing can be both beneficial and risky (like nuclear energy for example), it proves to be a hard issue for us to swallow, and analyze.  Perhaps many emotions are the result of this conflict that we consciously or unconsciously perceive.
  2. We have a bias for novelty. New things are inherently more interesting than the old, common, and known ones. In this day and age this imperfection is really starting to become a hindrance, and getting caught in the endless cycle of news is so easy with our smartphones, tablets, RSS readers and such. Heck, I often can’t even finish reading one book not thinking about all others that stand on the shelves around.
  3. Also, a similar variation of previous bias is the one for uncommonality – if a thing is rare, it catches our attention much quicker, than if it is common. Media are a good example on the manifestation of this rule. In connection to our inability of assessing risks and understanding big numbers, it proves a real challenge to obtain a view on reality that is… well… as close to “real” as possible.
  4. We have a bias for finding patterns, even if there are none. Which is totally understandable, but it makes our lifes more difficult if we want to actually know what is true, and what isn’t. It’s even worse when we are looking for an invisible agent in places, where there doesn’t have to be one. It might be fun (or scary), it makes a great story (and we are suckers for good stories, I tell you), but it “ain’t exactly real”, as one famous singer put it.
  5. Confirmation bias plays well into the bias for searching patterns. Once we think up of a possible pattern, it is easier and more “natural” to look for the evidences proving our idea, than to come up with those that disprove it. Reading a balanced article can actually increase our bias, instead of reducing it. It takes a lot of courage to think about possibility of myself being wrong.
  6. Anchoring. Our brain focuses on the first thing that comes to its attention, and uses it for future reasoning, even if the thing has nothing to do with the problem at hand. It is a great feature helping us to process complex problems, and to arrive at conclusions in some sort of sensible time, but in a distracting environment, such conclusions can be totally unwarranted. And we fall for anchoring each and every time – there is no way to defend from it, even if we try to compensate for it! Beware of marketers that ask you seemingly innocen questions at the beginning of your conversation, especially any numbers. It is a trap. Run like hell! 🙂

What’s good about it all is that we slowly start to understand the role that emotions play in our decision making, and shaping our view of the world. They are crucial, cannot, and should not be eliminated – they are what makes us going through life. But at the same time, it is vital to be aware of one’s weak and blind spots. Because we all do have them in abundance.

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About Bart Walczak

I'm a video editor, and an aspiring colorist and VFX artist, with some experience in desktop publishing, web development and programming.
This entry was posted in psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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