Make the Most of Mental Shortcuts

We all like shortcuts. Businesses and employees are always excited to learn a new way to get a task done better, faster, or smarter. But did you know that your brain takes shortcuts too? They’re called cognitive heuristics. In this blog, I’ll explain what they are and how they affect the workplace.

What We Know About Heuristics

This article provides a pretty thorough overview of the topic. Cognitive heuristics are rule-of-thumb strategies that most brains use to make life simpler. These are ways that we think about complicated decisions or problems so that they’re easier to resolve. We first discovered this kind of thinking in the 1950s. That’s when cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon introduced the concept. A few decades later, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman identified heuristics as biases. In 1974, they published their research on bias in judgment.

Bias might sound like a bad thing, but that’s not always the case. This article from the Decision Lab points out that it’s just another way of thinking about something. Instead of having to consider every pro and con, heuristics break down the problem. They make choices more manageable.

Types of Cognitive Heuristics

There are lots of shortcuts that our brain can take. This fun animated video gives a super quick overview of ten common heuristics. For example, we’re probably all familiar with the self-serving bias. This is what makes it easier for us to dismiss negative feedback and keep trying! Of course, it’s important to grow from failures. But this bias can make it easier to do so without getting too discouraged.

Anchoring bias is another interesting heuristic. (It’s in that video and this article.) Imagine you’re asked to guess the population of a country, and you don’t know! If someone else guesses 10 million, your next guess is likely going to be close to 10 million. However, if someone else guesses 100 million, your guess will be a lot higher! That’s because our brains anchor themselves in the first piece of information they get. This heuristic makes guessing easier than having to think long and hard about a question.

Here’s one more from the video! (You’ll have to watch it to learn about all the others.) Have you ever thought about a big project and figured, “I’ll just start that next week”? Well, that was your planning fallacy in action. This heuristic makes you think that tasks will take less time than they actually do. I can see how our brains would rather think of big assignments as quick and easy, but this might not serve us well! Fortunately, I’ve got tips on meeting deadlines and strategies to stop procrastinating in those earlier blogs to help you out.

Why Brains Take Shortcuts

Once you realize how these cognitive heuristics are tricking us, you might wonder why we use them at all. This medically reviewed article explains their purpose. Cognitive heuristics reduce the mental effort our brains need to make decisions. That’s important because we need our brains alert, not fatigued, to do our best work. (Of course, sleeping well and eating right helps too.)

hourglass running outPlus, we usually have limited time and information available to make decisions. For instance, think about that population question. You could Google for the answer, of course. But what if you’re asked a more complicated question, and you don’t have time to research the answer? That’s where heuristics come in handy. They help us get to answers and solutions quickly. This way, as this article points out, you’ll have more of your mental resources available for other tasks.

It’s worth noting, though, that not all our reasons for using cognitive heuristics are good ones. In this video, you’ll learn that being emotional or rushed can make you rely on a heuristic too. So even if you had the time to figure out the most correct answer, you might just guess. By the way, social pressure can push you to rely on a bias too. That can have some dangerous consequences in the workplace.

The Impact

As this article points out, cognitive heuristics can lead us to make prejudiced decisions. They also make us more likely to rely on stereotypes. For instance, think about the research on short lists that I referenced in this earlier article. The study found that managers are more likely to consider women for a role if they extend the short list. But why would hiring managers hire more men otherwise? Think of that anchoring bias. They’re asked the question, “Who should fill this role?” Considering every possible candidate would be time-consuming and overwhelming. Instead, they’ll probably think of who was last in that role. That would probably be a man, as I explained in this blog on women in the workplace. And then they’ll think of other candidates like that man.

As you can see, cognitive heuristics might be one barrier in the way of hiring a diverse and talented workforce. That’s going to interfere with an organization’s efforts to embrace Corporate Social Responsibility. Clearly, employees and leaders need strategies to work around cognitive biases when they’re making very important decisions.

How to Handle Heuristics

This article has some ideas to get you started. For instance, slow down. Take more time on important decisions. That’s the advice the research on extending short lists came up with too. Additionally, think about the ultimate goal. This blog can help guide you in that process. Once you’ve identified what you want to accomplish, consider who will be affected by your choices. Again, this makes you slow down enough to override any automatic heuristics popping up. This video suggests considering the impacts your decision will have in 10 years. That’s basically the same idea.

Another suggestion both the article and video propose involve your feelings. As we said before, emotions can make us more likely to rely on cognitive heuristics. Take some time to process your emotions before making a critical work decision. Look for facts to support or oppose your gut instinct. Question yourself before you reach a final conclusion.

This research also notes that sharing the responsibility for collecting information helps. In other words, use coworkers and technology, like artificial intelligence, when possible! Pyrus might be just the software solution you need to prevent cognitive heuristics from taking over your work. With this software, collaboration and communication with colleagues will be easier. Plus, Pyrus will automatically collect and display data that you can use to make more objective, data-driven decisions. With Pyrus, your brain won’t even need heuristics to make work simpler. Pyrus will be doing that job already.