Thinking is hard work. It requires both physical effort and constant vigilance to overcome our built-in biases. Our natural state as human beings is to avoid effort, since effort costs calories. Human beings have been designed to conserve effort.
Daniel Kahneman, in his most recent book, Thinking: Fast and Slow does a wonderful job of illustrating how the human brain works, and why we are so prone biased decision-making. According to Kahneman, humans have two systems of thinking. Fast thinking uses unconscious heuristics or “rules of thumb” to make quick decisions. Fast thinking is automated, unconscious thought that requires little effort. Slow thinking requires an effortful, conscious, careful assessment. Kahneman demonstrates the level of effort required for slow thinking through several experiments. During these experiments, people who are very focused on difficult tasks actually experience dilated pupils – their pupils actually become larger. At the same time, when we are putting a lot of effort into a difficult mental task, we actually become blind to everything else around us.
Because effortful thinking is so hard, we tend to rely upon the routine processing of our brains. We tend to skip much of the critical thinking that is essential to good decision-making. And the problem with routine processing is that it can lead to many decision errors. The challenge for most of us is to figure out when to switch into “effortful” thinking. When can we rely on our instincts and when do we need to be more thorough in our decision-making?
Here’s an interesting fact. Did you know that we tend to rely on emotion when we lack experience or information in a specific situation? Human being abhor a vacuum. When we don’t have information, we tend to rely on our emotions to fill in the blanks. For example, when evaluating job interview candidates, we tend to rely on how we feel about them to infer something about their abilities, traits and behaviours. We use those inferences to assess their suitability for the job.
So the next time you are in a situation where you lack experience or information, ask yourself whether you are using evidence or impressions to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.