Why do I make bad decisions?

As human beings, we are constantly engaged in making decisions about our careers, emotions, parenting, finances, desires, ambitions, and so on. And considering the gamut of decisions we’re expected to make, it’s almost inevitable that we would make the odd bad decision. But what constitutes a bad decision?

It usually involves a decision that is not rationally thought out. A decision based on impulse, bias, blind spots, rather than an algorithmic method of deduction. Now, it is important to realize that even decision made rationally can go awry however, the probability is much lesser and therefore, more rational thinking is more dependable. Bad decisions become bad decisions based on the consequences. And for some divine reason, regrettable decisions don’t occur as often. However when they do, they stick out, like sore thumbs. Often, constituting a major portion of what we think. Therefore, understanding our own internal thinking patterns is essential to avoid bad decision making. 

If the human mind/brain had a motto, it would be this “achieve maximum efficiency while putting in the least amount of effort”. You can read more about it in this book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin Press Non-Fiction)

This method of working of our brain is primed towards making irrational decision and unfortunately for us, most good decisions require effortful thinking.

Any given decision revolves around conflicting situations with many pros and cons, and careful consideration is necessary to make a qualified decision. But like I said, we are pre-set to resolve these conflicts quickly and with minimum effort. 

In this conundrum, between thinking deeply and wanting a quick resolution, we end up taking decisions based on heuristics or, mental shortcuts. 

Heuristics are escape routes created by the mind to avoid thinking deeply and in effect, save its resources. These shortcuts are mental deceits that arrive at decisions quickly while maintaining a mirage that careful consideration of all information was done. But in reality, these mental shortcuts tend to lead us astray, opening the gateway towards bad decision making. You could say then, that, ‘To err, is then, the very essence of being human’. 

decision making

Are we victims of our irrational decision making?

No, we can control how to think and be rational. But like all new things, it’s a difficult art to master. Rational thinking and decision making are major reasons why we sit atop the food chain, drive fancy cars and eat gourmet meals, but these moments are few and far between. On a day-to-day basis, we aren’t really very rational.

In order to improve our decision making all it requires is that we develop awareness about our mental shortcuts, and maintain alertness to them and our biases. This is easier said than done and awareness is only half the battle won. Good decision making also requires us to develop the capability to stop ourselves from falling prey to these biases and shortcuts. 

What are these shortcuts?

There are many shortcuts that we use over and over again but we will focus on two major types – representative and availability heuristics.

The representative shortcut is our tendency to categorize an individual, event, or object, to its closest prototypal category in our minds. Essentially, what this means is that when we see a person, we notice their hair, physical attributes, clothing style, how they walk and talk, and so on. All of these aspects are then matched with certain prototypes that are already existing in our minds. These prototypes are formed based on our past experiences. And the closer these noticed attributes are to the prototype, the quicker we judge them to belong to that category.  

Take, for example, you see a girl reading in a coffee shop. She’s wearing spectacles, a white frock, neatly tied up ponytail, and seems engrossed in a book. What do you think about her?

Is she someone who would read a lot? Do you think she visits the café often? What was her skin colour? Most individuals would think of her as an avid reader, café visitor and for some reason fair.

But how do we know that for sure? This may be a case of her manipulating the date she’s waiting on. It may even be the first time she’s reading anything. But it’s so seamless for us to quickly jump to the conclusion that she must be an avid reader. Why? Because it saves us the effort of going through all different scenarios.

You can catch yourself when you use the representative shortcut. Think of a time where you found yourself surprised by something someone said or did and you uttered to yourself ‘I didn’t expect that’. This is a classic case of a representative shortcut. You were surprised simply because their behaviour didn’t fit with how you thought of them – your prototype or category. 

The good news is that prototyping is a dynamic process. So each time you see a new, hitherto unknown, aspect of an individual, you re-categorize them. Either by putting them in a new prototype or adjusting the old prototype to extend to this behaviour as well. 

It may seem like the representative shortcut is always bad but the truth is that it has its benefits. It often helps us make good decisions. It helps you connect with people in the presence of limited information, thereby making it easier to get work done. But often it’s simply not the correct way to make a decision. The devil is truly in the details and we like to avoid such detail. 

While the representative shortcut is dependent on prototypes, the availability shortcut has more to do with the functioning of our memory.

Availability shortcut has more to do with the ease with which certain memories come to mind. So if a particular memory is recalled quicker, then we assume that the memory is more powerful. The understanding is that if a thought comes quicker, it is more unconscious, therefore, it must be authentic. But this is yet another case of the mind pushing towards its goal of lessening effort.

Availability shortcut is frequently seen in times when we try to ascertain our emotions. For instance, if you have fought with your spouse recently, and they make another mistake soon after, it’s simply easier to feel like they keep trying to hurt you or that the relationship is not working out because you feel hurt. It is extremely difficult in such moments to think about:

a)     The reasons behind their mistakes

b)    The good times in the relationship that have kept you there.

Once you get out of this situation, you could think about the above-mentioned lines of thought but at that moment you’d think it’s your divine right to be angry. But that is not the case. Just because anger came flooding through doesn’t mean it is the right way to behave. 

Basing any decision on the most recent event will most likely be irrational and incorrect. But we persist in making decisions in this manner. 

It might seem as though these shortcuts create only problems but that’s not true. All these mental shortcuts help us make quick, often lifesaving, decisions and we must be grateful to them for that. For example, if you were living in a seismic zone, and notice that things shaking on your desk, you can’t simply sit there and try to analyse whether it’s rational to run. In all probability, it is an earthquake and it’s better to be safe than sorry. So run without thinking too much. Letting your mental shortcut decide is preferable in situations such as those. But often, they also lead us astray, and the effects of the shortcuts are worsened when we become too dependent on them. Therefore, remaining cognizant of our use of mental shortcuts is essential as they can be both beneficial and harmful. The same cannot be said about biases.

Learn more from our Study Material Section on Cognitive Psychology.

References and Suggested Readings:

Social Psychology

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin Press Non-Fiction)

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