We make hundreds of if not thousands of decisions each day. Take a simple example of deciding what to eat for breakfast in the morning. You have to consider what’s in your pantry, how much time you have to prepare the meal, what you like/dislike, and even sometimes the time of year (what we eat on holidays is probably different from what we eat after New Year’s resolutions start). Once we have decided on what to eat then we have to make a whole host of other decisions in order to act. Say I pick toast. I need to know that toast is made from bread, that it needs to be toasted with some type of heat source, and how to operate the toaster. Once the toast is made I need to decide what to put on for toppings.
But it probably wasn’t this hard for you to decide on breakfast this morning. Why was it so much easier to make that decision?
In the 1960s and 70s the predominant theory in psychology and medicine was that our brains were like computers. We took information in, processed the information, and made reasoned judgments based on evidence.
Two Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman challenged this belief. They proposed that our brains use a number of mental shortcuts called heuristics to make decisions.
These heuristics are generally helpful and they save time and energy. Rather than thinking about all the potential choices our brains use shortcuts to make decisions faster. Unfortunately this means these heuristics are prone to error.
Here’s an example of how these errors can happen. Say I flip a coin and it comes up heads. I flip it again, and again, and again, and again and each time it’s heads. It’s been heads 5 times in a row. What would you bet on next? Tails? Heads?
What if I flipped 20 heads in a row? Would you change your bet?
After a coin lands on heads several times in a row we are more likely to bet tails. This is because of what’s called the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is the belief that strings of good and bad luck occur, and that after so many heads the odds have to “even out” and there will be a run of tails.
But that isn’t how probability works. When you flip a coin the chance of heads is 50/50 each time. The odds of each coin toss are independent. It doesn’t matter what was flipped the first time.
The Gambler’s Fallacy is sometimes called the Monte Carlo effect. On August 19, 1923 at the Monte Carlo Casino the ball fell on black 26 times in a row at the roulette wheel. People lost fortunes betting on red because of the belief that this run of luck had to run out eventually. The ball did eventually fall on red, but then people continued to lose money favoring red because of the belief that more red spins were likely after that long run of black. The chances of getting 26 black spins in a row of course are very low. But when betting on a coin flip or roulette spin you are not betting on the sequence, you are betting on the individual toss, with 50/50 odds each time.
Another heuristic or mental shortcut described by Tversky and Kahneman is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency we have to judge how often an event occurs by how easily we can think of examples. The easier it is for us to think of an example of an event the more frequently we think it occurs. This works well most of the time. It’s usually easier for us to think of examples of events that happen more often. The problem is that some events stand out more in our memory than others.
Here’s an example. Are you more likely to be killed in a shark attack or by a cow? Worldwide about 6 deaths per year occur due to shark attack. In comparison, cows kill about 20 Americans per year. We should really be terrified of mosquitoes because they kill three quarters of a million people per year due to transmission of malaria and dengue fever.
Plane crashes are equally low frequency. Your chance of being in a plane crash is about 1 in 11 million. You have a better chance of winning an Oscar, or drowning in your bathtub.
We fear shark attacks and plane crashes for a few reasons. The less common something is, the harder it is for our brains to judge how often it happens. Also, you can probably easily remember the last time you saw a news story of a fatal plane crash, but when is the last time you heard of someone being killed by a cow, or malaria. Media coverage significantly influences our perception of how frequent events are.
Tversky and Kahneman proposed a dual process theory of cognition. System 1 uses heuristics. It makes decisions fast with minimal effort, but can be prone to error. System 2 is slower and requires more effort to think through the possible choices. This means System 2 is more controlled, but this system uses up a lot of brain resources. We’ve probably all had the experience that it’s harder to make well thought out decisions when we are tired, under stress, or sick.
The good news is that we can change from System 1 to System 2 thinking in some circumstances. A 2013 study found that just 15 minutes of meditation led participants to make more well-reasoned decisions. It’s probably okay to leave easier decisions like what to have for breakfast to System 1 thinking. But if you need to make an important decision, like deciding on a new job or how best to approach a difficult conversation with a colleague, try stopping for 15 minutes of meditation before you make this decision. There are many great resources online for guided meditations (try the Calm app for example). You might find you make better decisions after this brief mental break.