My Favorite Things: How Shortcuts Help and Hinder Us

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We live in a world of incomprehensible levels of sensory/cognitive stimulation. The brain that processes this stimulation is essentially, structurally the same as the one our ancestors had 100,000 years ago. 100,000 years with the same brain from East Africa to the Lower East Side!

Think about that. Our predecessors lived on the plains of East Africa. We live in…the modern world. We have the same brains. How is that possible?

Primarily, cultural evolution. At about that time, the biology of the brain became the platform that our ancestors used to establish patterns of living that they passed on to their offspring and fellow communal members through imitation and language. Ways of doing things. Culture.

Gradually over thousands of years, and then rapidly over the last few centuries, we’ve established cultural norms that led to selecting for the cognitive abilities that enabled us to quickly evaluate sensory stimulation, make decisions, and take action.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re walking on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, sitting in your office quietly reading emails, or lounging on a beach, your brain is constantly processing the world around you as information. Processing the world as information entails evaluating the physical stimuli being delivered by our bodily mechanisms. Sounds, smells, pressure on different parts of your body, temperature, the shapes of letters presented on printed or projected pages of text: those (unconscious) evaluations have been finely honed by evolution to enable us to ultimately accomplish one or both of human life’s fundamental goals: survival and reproduction.

Neuroscientists tell us that the part of the overall human cognitive/emotional/behavioral system that does the majority of this processing is what Daniel Kahneman has dubbed System One, and that we here at My Favorite Things have called The Elephant, following a tradition most recently taken up by Jonathan Haidt. System One operates beyond our focused awareness; unconsciously. System Two, or The Rider, is a way of depicting our focused, conscious, aware attention to the things in our world.

The Elephant’s information processing capacity is around 11 million bits/second, while The Rider’s hovers around 40 bits/second; an astonishing disparity! Considering The Elephant’s crucial remit to keep us alive while we search for opportunities to propagate (think of “survival” and “reproduction” as broad terms describing ways of succeeding in modern life), it’s not surprising that evolution has equipped System One with tools to help it manage its tasks. One of the most crucial of those is The Elephant’s capacity to quickly sort incoming information into categories that reflect their importance to fulfilling its jobs. Shortcuts. Two of The Elephant’s most important shortcuts are biases and heuristics.

Let’s start with biases.

Many of us find the idea of having biases undesirable. We recoil when another person points out that a remark or decision we’ve made reflects preconceived ideas and assumptions about an individual or group. Racism, sexism, ageism, or lookism, are all examples of (largely) unconscious harmful biases. Many of us strive to eliminate the effects of these ideas from our decision-making processes. But biases evolved to enable our predecessors’ Elephants to accurately, quickly evaluate situations without engaging in too much conscious thinking.

It is very cognitively “expensive” to revise our opinions or beliefs every time we encounter a set of circumstances. Let’s say we see a person wearing a red hat with white letters on it: MAGA. We deduce this person is a Donald Trump supporter. Our current cultural context leads us to almost instantly attribute a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to that person based on that deduction. (Psychologists call this our ability to create a “theory of mind” to make other people more predictable.) To simplify our interactions and avoid the cognitive expense, we’ve come to accept that if we come upon these circumstances again, the odds are that what we concluded in the past still holds today. New person—> Red MAGA hat = Trump supporter = set of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors. Regardless of what this person does or says, our Elephant is highly sensitized to find “evidence” that the person fits into our previously constructed framework. The “evidence” may be a subtle gesture or sound, but it will be quickly taken as proof that our previous conclusions are true. This an example of one of our most powerful cognitive mechanisms: confirmation bias.

While we may be uneasy about confirmation biases, we’d be lost without them. Imagine trying to predict what each individual driver will do when approaching a traffic light that turns from yellow to red? Our predetermined conclusion is that every driver will stop, a conclusion that has proven correct enough times to cement the expectation—>confirmation connection in our inventory of System One unconscious beliefs.

Of course, not every bias is as benign and functionally crucial as the stoplight confirmation bias. Modern culture has challenged us to examine our beliefs and attitudes to uncover inaccurate vestigial biases (e.g., women can’t do science) and combat the unconscious effects they are having on our current behavior.

Now, heuristics are different cognitive operations. Think of heuristics as “rules of thumb” that help us solve problems. Heuristics govern a wide range of opinions, decisions, and behavior. Think about your typical way of making a purchasing decision. How much research will you do? What are your go-to sources of information? How much research will you do before deciding what to buy? For most of us, the answers will depend on the item under consideration. If we’re shopping for a car we’re likely to answer differently than if we’re shopping for a sweater. But not all of us. Some of us will make decisions based almost exclusively on things our friends tell us. Or on the last thing we heard on TV. Or the average Amazon rating. Others will only decide after carefully gathering and comparing information from many sources. Those approaches are part of our decision-making heuristic repertoire. Psychologists call these two heuristic styles satisficing and maximizing.

Most of us are unaware of the power that our heuristics and biases have in our everyday lives. Kahneman succinctly described our way of going through our everyday lives: What You See Is All There Is (or, WYSIATI). We live as if the world is simply “out there,” “as is,” presenting itself to us as if we were passive viewers; something like a video camera recording what’s going on. WYSIATI is a way of describing the invisibility of our assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes; the very mechanisms that present the world to us as meaningful. It’s the old, “water is invisible to fish” idea. We all know that my WYSIATI and your WYSIATI are not the same. Ask three people what they thought of the Barbie movie as a small demonstration. Those differences are predominantly the results of our Elephants’ meaning-generating shortcuts.

It is very rare for us to question the way The Elephant presents the world to us. Questioning your WYSIATI is hard cognitive work. But, if you’re interested in seeing the ways that your current lived-world is shaped by your prior beliefs, there’s no better place to start than to take a step back and wonder what’s led you to perceive people and situations the way you do. You’ll discover that heuristics and biases are responsible for a great deal of what you take for granted as “the way things are.”

The big question is, which of your Elephant’s shortcuts are helping you to live the life you want to live, and which are outgrowths of ways of thinking that no longer reflect who you are and want to be? That’s when your Rider can decide to pay closer attention to the assumptions that deliver your WYSIATI. Slowing down the Elephant’s shortcuts isn’t easy but it can reveal important insights about your unconscious beliefs, and ways to help align them with your desired self.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Banner: MidJourney image by the author.

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