This Common Mental Shortcut Can Lead To Bad Decision-Making

The brain's natural tendency to cut corners can pave the way for irrational decisions.

Our brains like to take shortcuts wherever they can.

Mental shortcuts, known in psychology as heuristics, act as a way for the brain to conserve energy and work more efficiently. These little tricks and “rules of thumb” allow us to quickly make judgments and solve problems. But they don’t always work very well.

If we’re not careful, cognitive shortcuts can pave the way for some serious thinking errors. In a recent study, psychologists at Duke University put these cognitive shortcuts to the test, and found that the brain’s use of heuristics often results in irrational decision-making.

The findings, which were published last week in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that while emotions are often pegged as the enemy of reason, a lazy brain is more likely to blame for irrational judgments.

For the experiment, the participants were asked to play an economic game. In the first scenario, they were given $20 in house money and offered two choices: 1) Keep $10 for sure, or 2) flip a coin. If the coin is heads, you get to keep all $20, but if it’s tails, you get nothing. In this scenario, most participants preferred to take the sure bet, and went with option 1.

In the second scenario, participants were given $20 and offered two choices: 1) Lose $10 for sure, or 2) flip a coin. Heads, you can keep the whole $20. Tails, you lose everything. In this case, most participants chose to take the gamble over the sure loss.

Here’s the catch, if you haven’t already figured it out: Although both scenarios carry the same level of risk, the brain evaluates them differently. In assessing these two scenarios, the participants fell victim to what’s known as the “framing effect,” which shows that the way a problem is framed influences whether we decide to take a risk or play it safe.

To investigate what causes the framing effect, the Duke psychologists conducted brain scans on 143 study participants as they evaluated a number of scenarios like the ones presented above.

There are two main theories explaining what drives the framing effect. One theory suggests that framing is caused by emotion: The prospect of winning money makes us feel good, and the prospect of losing money makes us feel bad. The other theory argues that framing effects are the result of cognitive shortcuts ― in this case, a “rule of thumb” instructing the brain to accept sure gains and avoid sure losses.

The brain scans revealed that the participants’ brains were in a state of mental disengagement, or resting, while they made choices consistent with the framing effect. But when they made choices that overcame the framing effect, their brain activity resembled that of the brain in “working” mode, suggesting they were putting in some effort to resist the framing effect. However, the degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled brain maps associated with emotion did not predict the participants’ choices.

This suggests that rather than emotion, it’s laziness ― or, if you like, habit ― that lies at the root of this cognitive bias.

“Our findings support the theory that the biased decision-making seen in the framing effect is due to a lack of mental effort rather than due to emotions,” Dr. Rosa Li, a psychologist at the university and the study’s lead author, wrote.

We make these kinds of mistakes all the time in the real world. For instance, people are more likely to buy ground meat that’s labeled as 75 percent lean than meat that’s labeled 25 percent fat. And beyond the world of consumer choice, there are plenty of other examples of framing effects at work.

Is there a way to avoid these kinds of thinking errors? Simply becoming more aware of common cognitive pitfalls can go a long way in improving decision-making ― and remembering that it’s probably not your emotions that are getting in the way.

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