Psychology: Let's Get Real - We All Make Mistakes

This is an edited extract from The Little Black Book of Decision Making: Making Complex Decisions with Confidence in a Fast-Moving World, by Michael Nicholas

Let's Get Real: We All Make Mistakes

Running on Instinct

Psychologists use the term heuristics to describe the unconscious mental shortcuts that we take to arrive at judgments or solve problems. To date, dozens of them have been identified; hindsight bias being just one example.

When we are faced with difficult questions, high complexity or ambiguity, or a need for high speed, heuristics can help us to find answers or solutions that would otherwise be beyond conscious reach.

However, because they evolved to enable us to cope with an evolutionary past when we were living on the plains, hunting and gathering, the biases they introduce are often imperfect and may lead to terrible mistakes.

Mental shortcuts can even lead to inappropriate biases in life or death situations, as demonstrated by a study by Amos Tversky which looked at how the way that data is presented can affect doctors’ choices. All of the participants received the same data on the effectiveness of two interventions for lung cancer: surgery and radiation treatment. It indicated that radiation offered a much better chance of survival in the short term, but a lower life expectancy over the next few years.

For half of the participants the data was presented in relation to survival rates, whilst for the others it was provided in terms of death rates; for example, the statistics for the surgical treatment of 100 patients were as follows:

Time Period / Survival Rate / Death Rate
Immediately /      90            /       10
After 1 Year /       68            /       32
After 5 Years /     34            /       66

Clearly, from a mathematical/logical point of view, the two columns of data are exactly the same, yet 82% of the doctors presented with the survival data recommended surgery versus only 56% of those who were given the opposite perspective.

Studies like this demonstrate the enormous influence that heuristics can have on our decision making; in particular, how difficult it is for us to divorce decisions from their emotional components.

Heuristics can be considered to be much like instincts. Animal instincts are easy to recognise; indeed, we assume that this is how animals do pretty much everything. As human beings, however, we generally prefer to think of ourselves as rational. We like to hang on to the evidence of our conscious experience, which suggests that our experience of the world is “accurate” and that we form beliefs and opinions based on the facts of the situation.

"Naive Realism"

Social psychologist Lee Ross called this conviction “naïve realism” – the conviction that we have the ability to experience events as they are. It enables us to justify any opinion as reasonable, because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t hold it! Sounds great, doesn’t it?

And it is completely wrong. The logic of this kind of thinking does not bear scrutiny, but that’s okay because it’s an easy choice not to investigate…

As you ponder the following questions, I’d like you to consider the idea that conscious awareness only provides access to the tip of the iceberg of what goes on in our mind, and that we have instinctive capabilities that go much deeper:

  • When you see a breed of dog that you’ve never seen before, would you know that you are looking at a dog? If so, how? Check whether your descriptions could also apply to, for example, a cat or any other animal.
  • When you see a caricature of someone you know well, would you recognise them? What gives you this capability?
  • Would you be able to tell the difference between, say, a Scottish and an Irish accent (or any other two accents)? Just try for a moment to put a conscious description to the differences.
  • If you walk into a room where two people have just been arguing, would you tend to be able to sense the tension in the room? When this happens, is it an instant feeling, or something that you have to think about? How can you tell?
  • If you are like most people, you probably have little ability to describe the rules of grammar. So how is it that you, like almost everyone else, can probably use a wide range of these rules effectively most of the time in both speech and writing?

In each of these cases, and many others like them, the subtle distinctions that shape our awareness can be seen to occur automatically and virtually effortlessly. Almost any adult would readily recognise, for example, “dog” from “not-dog”, even though any verbal explanation of how such a feat can be achieved would be highly incomplete.

The capacity to handle situations like those above stems from the enormous power of the unconscious mind, which can process rich and detailed information far beyond the limits of the conscious.

Because of this unconscious capacity, we have the ability to solve many problems for which the conscious mind is completely unequipped. Even your capacity to read this text is enabled by your subconscious doing the hard work; hence, no thinking is required.

This is an edited extract from The Little Black Book of Decision Making: Making Complex Decisions with Confidence in a Fast-Moving World, by Michael Nicholas (Published by Capstone, A Wiley Brand, July 2017).

About the author:

Having started his training business in 2004, Michael Nicholas has become a highly-experienced coach and award-winning professional speaker. He specialises in decision-making, emotional intelligence and employee engagement, with clients ranging from leading FTSE companies, through small and medium-sized enterprises, to dynamic entrepreneurial businesses. For more information visit