The biggest turning points in our lives come from moments when we need to make a decision. We make decisions ranging from the most trivial to the most important every single day. We pick and choose the friends who are right for us, the directions in which to travel, the careers to develop, and the cities to build. Anatomically speaking, we humans are all basically the same. It is our decisions that set us apart.
Decisions are not always easy, and the modern world often asks a lot from our poor ape brains. Sometimes it seems like we can’t win. We can have both too little and too much choice. Our conscious minds can overthink a problem while our unconscious minds miss too much. And we are expected to make reasonable sense of what is around us now, while also predicting the future consequences of the possible decisions available to us.
Predicting the future is no easy feat for non-clairvoyants (i.e. everyone). Many people and events can depend on what we decide to do, and I’m not just talking about the decisions of war generals. Deciding whether or not to buy a coffee right now can impact what we hear and say in a later work meeting and might affect our reputations and careers. Deciding whether to take this crowded train or the next quiet one to university can determine whether we make it to an exam on time or fail. And the most recent pressing decision on my mind while I lived in the UK: deciding whether or not to attend a wedding can impact how particular people feel about us.
As I hinted at when I referred to our poor ape brains, our reasoning and decision-making is not optimally set up for modern day in civilized society. There are plenty of processes and mechanisms that made sense in our evolutionary history, but now are misaligned with the ideals and demands of modern life. We call them cognitive biases and our brain is littered with them. I will talk through just a few of these in the context of my decision-making on the day I had to attend a wedding, because it’s easy to see how often I make these mistakes. It might seem like a dire situation for human psychology, but far from it. When I notice a cognitive bias appear in my head and remain aware of it, it is less likely to force me into making poor decisions that turn my molehills into mountains.
Keep in mind this important note as I tell you the story: I hate weddings. I absolutely hate weddings. And I argued with my wife every day for one month about why I had to go to this specific wedding, and why I couldn’t just stay at home (just like I argued for my own wedding). This was how my morning went on that day. I will italicize my cognitive mistakes to make them extra embarrassing. I hope you can relate to at least a couple of them. Here goes…
7am — My alarm rings and I slowly open my eyes. It dawns upon me. It is the day of that wedding, and I need to leave the house within the next hour for a long journey from London to Codsall. Codsall for goodness sake. Codsall! What a daft name for a place.
7.15am — I’m still lying in bed, and putting off the day ahead by reading the news on my phone. I get a message from my wife who is flying in from Washington DC and meeting me at the wedding. Her flight was cancelled during the night while I was failing to sleep but avoiding looking at my phone, and she had to get on a new one. She will now be at the wedding 6 hours after I arrive in Codsall. I will need to spend 6 hours in a dingy little depressing village cafe, waiting for my wife, so that I don’t need to spend any time alone at the wedding. This is an abomination.
Cognitive bias 1 — Overgeneralizing learned rules: I have been to many small English villages in my time, and I would estimate something like 40% of them had cafes that I did not enjoy sitting or working in. In cities, this value is close to 0%. So I have detected what I believe is a reasonable pattern in the world in terms of my preferences, but I am over-applying the rule to places I have never visited before. Yes, I have encountered far more beastly cafes in small villages than I have in cities. But it is nowhere near 100% of those villages. So I should be giving completely new places a good chance of impressing me with their cafe selection. Some evidence suggests overgeneralization may be relevant in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, where patients’ perceptions of danger spread too far.
7.31am — I’ve made it into the shower.
8am — After sulkily putting on my clothes and throwing my suit in a bag, I am prepared to leave. I look out of the window and it is pissing it down out there (translation for non-British people: raining heavily). I do not have an umbrella.
8.15am — I’ve walked through the rain and I’m now at my local tube (subway/metro) station in east London. The place is crawling with humans scurrying to get to work in central London. I miss the first train I need because too many people get on ahead of me, so I wait my turn at the front of the queue for the next one. It arrives but I’m pushed out of the way by a small woman with curly hair who was behind me. She takes up the last empty space on the train as the doors slam shut, and she looks at me with contempt as it begins moving. This woman is an arrogant, selfish, devil-worshipper. I am now a misanthrope for the foreseeable future.
Cognitive bias 2 — Attributional biases: We can always catch ourselves making mistakes in how we attribute characteristics to the events in our lives. One example is the “curse of knowledge”, in which both adults and children incorrectly assume other people know what they do. This makes communication difficult and can lead to bad decisions. We also make errors in attributing responsibility, especially by ascribing permanence to what is temporary. When we are happy or sad, we often feel it is a defining part of us rather than a fleeting emotional experience that will come and go. Patients with depression have a worse problem: they believe that any negative emotions will stay with them forever and are their own fault, while positive emotions are an accident that will disappear before long. We also tend to assume that other people’s bad behavior is attributable to basic character flaws rather than the possibility that they are just having a bad day. Is the pushy woman I met on the train really a devil-worshipper? Or could she have got some bad news about a relative that morning?
8.22am — I am sitting in a chair on the train platform in despair, with my head in my hands. Everyone has their own thing going on, entirely ignoring each other. A small black Labrador trots up to my leg on its owner’s leash. It stares into my eyes. This dog knows. It is confused about our culture and behavior and is questioning why we insist on standing in these crowded sweaty places rather than running around outside in the park chasing sticks.
Cognitive bias 3 — Anthropomorphization: We enjoy imbuing non-humans with human-like characteristics because we feel it helps us to understand them better. This is not always completely unrealistic. After all, a dog probably has some emotional subjective experiences going on, even if we cannot exactly pinpoint their quality relative to humans. The problems with anthropomorphization are a little clearer when we start talking about inanimate objects as though they were alive. We see eyes in the headlights of cars, a Mother figure within nature, and we form emotional attachments to rocks and bits of metal (e.g. jewelry). This might also relate to our visions of Gods and conscious intentions within natural phenomena throughout history. When people anthropomorphize slot machines, they even gamble more.
8.45am — I finally make it into a train, but on the way I become certain I will miss my train from London Euston station to Codsall. This annoys me and I seriously consider going back home, lying on my wonderful sofa, and ignoring all messages and calls from wedding people. But I have already paid money for the return train tickets. Surely I can’t waste that money by not taking the trip now? If I miss the train, I will just need to pay for another ticket at the station. I have come this far, lost this much money, and now I need to see the trip through to the end no matter what.
Cognitive bias 4: Sunk cost fallacy — This is often expressed as ‘throwing good money after bad’. When we have spent money on something, we experience an overwhelming commitment to it, and fight against any urge to drop out of the commitment early. When we buy a ticket to a play or an opera and take our seat, we are more likely to sit through a full 3–4 hours of torment rather than leave if we dislike what we are seeing. This is true even though the most rational decision is to leave if we predict continued disappointment from it. Remaining committed to a decision after we start it is perhaps one of the biggest drains on human time and happiness. And it’s not only monetary investments that affect us in this way. Commitments of effort and time also affect us in similar ways. Once we start, we are hesitant to stop, even if we foresee approaching disaster from continued commitment to our initial decision. We need to be able to stop when the time is right, ignoring past investments that have no real impact on what we do now. When resources have already been committed to a particular course of action, those sunk costs should not brainwash us into continuing with plans that turn out to be ineffective. Quitters are not always weak losers; they are often the strongest and most resilient people in the developed world. The sunk cost fallacy may itself be driven by overgeneralization (see Cognitive bias 1 above) of a “Don’t waste” rule.
9.22am — I ran at speeds that Einstein would be impressed with to catch the departing train at Euston station with about 15 seconds to spare. I drop myself down dramatically in an empty seat, and the air pushed out from under me creates a nice calming breeze. I think about the obstacles I have overcome to get here over the last couple of hours. So many separate bad things have happened on the way to this wedding. Positive and negative events seem to happen fairly randomly, sosurely I am due a pleasant surprise when I actually get to the wedding. Nobody has ever had such an unlucky roll.
Cognitive bias 5: The gambler’s fallacy: Have you ever been to a casino? Stand by the roulette table long enough and you’ll see something peculiar but intuitive for most people. When the roulette wheel has landed on red or black repeatedly in a row, customers start betting big on the opposite color for the next spin. They believe that in a random sequence, you are unlikely to see a long series of the same event. People intuitively feel that red, red, red, red, red, is less likely to happen than red, black, red, red, black, even though the probability of getting red or black is always 50%. This is referred to as the gambler’s fallacy. This is not just something that fools us standard everyday specimens of humanity. In my academic research, I analyzed some data that suggested elite soccer goalkeepers may show similar biases when deciding which way to dive in penalty shoot-outs.
12.00pm — I’m sitting in a cafe in Codsall, and against all the irrational odds I set myself, it’s one of the most peaceful and wonderful cafes I’ve ever sat in. I got more writing done than I normally would, had amazing cheap coffee and cake (relative to London where I lived at the time), and talked to random strangers about their lives. My wife ended up arriving around 6 pm and we made it to the wedding just before the curtains closed. I even enjoyed what was left of the wedding. Codsall is great…
I walked you through my mental mishaps on that wedding day because they are so representative of our general everyday reasoning (feel free to describe your own examples in the comments section to help me look less stupid). But the same biases could just as easily apply in more serious situations, where the basic impulses in our characters guide us towards disastrous beliefs and actions. All of the biases listed above can change our lives by affecting the decisions we make. And there are certainly many more than the ones I mention. By being more aware of them, we can minimize the chance that they blindside us where it hurts.