How Our Brain Unconsciously Influences Our Decisions

How Our Brain Unconsciously Influences Our Decisions

Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. If you want a different result, make a different choice ~ Unknown

This quote may give you an idea that Captain Obvious has been typing this one, but you’ll be surprised how many people stubbornly keep doing the same thing over and over again. A prerequisite for shaping your life in a Magnanimous way is “knowing thyself“. A good dose of honest self-knowledge will strengthen your identity, clarify what you want and what you’re good at (and equally important, not so good at), and catalyze changes for the better. I bolded ‘honest’ in the previous sentence, because our brain tends to fool ourselves. Regularly. It happens unconsciously, it distorts reality and subsequently impairs decision making.

In my previous post I already mentioned a cognitive bias (Misattribion of Arousal) and how to take advantage of our brain fooling us. When we talk about cognition, simply put we’re talking about everything related to thinking, reasoning and remembering. I promised to write about some more of these unconscious tricksters. These are the ones I believe we encounter a lot and will help us steer our decisions in the right direction, the more we get acquainted with them.

Confirmation Bias

The assumption. We as humans think we’re able to always objectively know how to interpret and recall information.

The wake-up call. When we’re presented with information we automatically, unconsciously search for, interpret or recall information that suits our preconceptions about a certain topic.

This is a bias you will see all around, once you know about it. How, for example, is it possible that two equally intelligent people assess the behaviour of the annoying orange that is in power of US in completely opposite ways? Or how is it possible that when Ajax plays a football match against Feyenoord, their respective supporters both have a totally different opinion who was best? Or even if that foul was a yellow card or not?

Another manifestation of this phenomenon that all of you can relate to (from approximately 16 years old on, depending on where you’re from), is when you have been talking about a car with a friend, or thought about buying one. The following weeks you will be thinking that there are more Range Rover Sports (aim high) on these streets than before, which is obviously not true.

Aim High
Aim High

The use. If you’d like to have an honest discussion with your girl or man the next time, form an honest opinion on something political, or feverishly defend your favorite beer against a great suggestion from another connoisseur, remember this bias. Take the time to place yourself in her/his shoes. Take the effort to read news outlets that support your antagonist. And the hardest of all, taste the damn beer without prejudice. (I’d recommend ‘Leffe Royale Whitbread Golding’)

Availability Heuristic

The assumption. We’re quite apt at estimating risks and we know about which risky stuff we should worry.

The wake-up call. We trust our limited memory too much which causes us to have a cloudy judgment. Believe it or not, but we homo sapiens tend to believe that if we CAN remember it, it HAS to be something important. And the faster we retrieve it, the more important it is. We even tend to discount information that isn’t in our memories. Remember this the next time someone brings up a fact about a topic you know something about, but unfortunately not that specific fact.

An interesting inference can be drawn here regarding the phrase: “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. The more you hear about a company or a person, good or bad, the easier, of course, you’ll retrieve it. Chances are it’ll work out fine for the specific company either way. So no worries, Patricia Paay!

The use. The next time your in a conversation about a topic and someone brings something up that you aren’t thinking of, don’t assume it’s not true, because you’re not thinking of it (note to self). And more important, when you’re about to make a decision, don’t solely rely on your inherently flawed memory. Get extra information from other sources. Don’t dismiss them, verify them.

The Framing Effect

The assumption. It doesn’t matter in which way a premise is presented to me. A premise is a premise.

The wake-up call. If people are presented the same premise, but with another choice of words, on average they will choose another option. And with other choice of words I mean a negative vs. a positive frame. People tend to be more risk seeking when a negative frame is presented versus a tendency to react risk averse when a positive frame is presented.

Let’s try the next premise from an experiment, conducted by (Nobel prize winner) Kahnemann & Tversky (1981).

Imagine 600 people are affected by a dangerous infectious decease. There are two treatments, which one would you choose:

  1. 200 people will be saved.
  2. A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.

Your choice..? Ok…

Now consider these treatments:

  1. 400 people will die.
  2. A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.

Which one do you choose..? Aha!

Now maybe you didn’t choose the other one, as you were given the theory behind it already. Or maybe you would’ve chosen the same option anyways. But the tendency is that people choose differently, while it’s the same situation. I invite you to test it on the next party you’re on. In this particular research, treatment 1 was chosen 72% of the time in a positive frame (saving lives), whereas it was only 22% in the negative frame (dying people).

The use. The next time when you are offered a holiday, for example, and you get offered the expensive one in such a way that you would rather choose that one over the cheaper one… Think twice. And a very useful, but underestimated trick – ask yourself this: Do you have problems? Or do you encounter challenges?

Framing effect
Half full or half empty? Framing options for yourself in a certain way too has an influence on how you proceed, and thus on how many chances you take… Or don’t.

Anchoring

The assumption. We rationally examine and take into account all factors, before making a decision.

The wake-up call. The first perception of information lingers in our minds and affects our emotions and decisions.

I know some people, who know some people who heard from some people that they used this trick when they were still working in a retail store. When a potential client came up to them with a product with no price tag on and asked for the price, they told they client that they ‘thought’ the price was $100, but to be sure they’d look it up. In the meanwhile they knew damn well that it was only $80! At first the client’s went “Uff, that’s a lot”. When the real, cheaper price came they thought: “Alright! That’s not so bad!! Give it to me!”.

Cha-Ching! This of course works especially when we’re oblivious about a topic. The $100 got anchored in the mind of the clients. That amount was too high. Another psychological effect at work here is that people want what they can’t have. So in the mean time the client is hoping for a lower price, because he or she wants the product even more, and he or she eventually get’s the lower price! What an awesome ‘lucky’ day…

The use. Next time you hear an amount about something you know nothing about, try to reason and/or find other information that can add some value towards a better decision. Or the other way around, aim high when selling your house or in negotiations (without overdoing it of course). And don’t trust those watch salesmen who are taking a look in the system to find the ‘real’ price…

Cognitive Biases
A comprehensive list of cognitive biases. For the crazy ones and the misfits among us. Zoom in or click to enlarge.

The keyword here is of course: information. The more information you have, the better decisions you make? Not necessarily. But solely relying on what you know and ignoring other information, or not analyzing the information at hand is probably not a good idea. There is one downside to this. It will cause you to question a lot of things, including yourself, which subsequently will cause uncertainty. But the pros will outweigh the cons, and your decisions will improve, and with that your QoL (Quality of Life). Balance is key.

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