If It Feels Right…

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The fact that our intuitive decisions are often strongly biased – even when we don’t realise it – has been established in thousands of studies. According to the work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others, we all use unconscious shortcuts or rules-of-thumb to help us make decisions. This can be a useful process when we add facts and conscious thoughts to these heuristics, but when we don’t, these processes can cause us to act out of our biases and prejudices and make mistaken decisions that ironically enough can feel right.

The following are some of the heuristics of unconscious reasoning identified in the 1970s by Kahnman and Tversky. (1)

The Representativeness Heuristic.

The more closely a person/thing resembles a stereotype the more likely we feel it is to be true. Not only that but when we feel we have a ‘good fit’, it will – without a shred of real evidence – give us an unwarranted feeling of confidence about our choice.

Let’s imagine a man called Steve. Steve is a shy and withdrawn man, he is invariably helpful but has little interest in people or the world of reality. Steve is a meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure and a passion for detail. The following is a list that includes Steve’s job – teacher, bus driver, farmer, doctor, librarian, chemist, plumber, sales assistant – if you were asked to decide which of these jobs Steve does for a living, which would you pick?

The vast majority of people when presented with this scenario decide that Steve is a librarian. Even though the description of Steve offers no clue as to his occupation  it makes no difference. The ‘fit’ seems to be good so most people will be confident that they have made the right decision about Steve.

The Availability Heuristic.

The easier it is to think of something the more likely we are to believe it will happen.  According to Dan Gardner in his book Risk, people who live in earthquake zones allow their earthquake insurance to lapse the more time passes since the last earthquake. People buy earthquake insurance immediately after an earthquake and then more and more of them allow it to lapse the further the last earthquake recedes in memory even though the risk of another earthquake rises the more time elapses.

Of all the heuristics, the availability heuristic is widely considered to be the most influential on behaviour.

The Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic.

People will base guesses and estimates on pre-existing (and in tests, pre-suggested) numbers while believing these guesses have a sound, logical and independent basis.

The Affect Heuristic.

If it feels good it’s good, if it feels bad it is bad.

Smoking , for example, feels good for smokers and that makes it hard for them to accept just how bad it is for their health. Equally there are things that feel bad /scary– e.g. change and we can interpret these things as bad for that reason alone.

If it feels right…

Understanding heuristics and the errors they can persuade us to make is important because sometimes these errors can be fatal. Just as airline pilots are trained to rely on instruments instead of using just their eyesight to guide them, we also need to compare facts and other data to our preconceived notions and biases if we want to avoid making serious mistakes.  

TomorrowOurselves and Others

(1) Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science185, 1124–1131.

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