Friday, 26 April 2013



     Social psychologists have termed humans “cognitive misers”, essentially pin-pointing to the fact that we take into consideration a very small amount of all the information that is available to us while making a decision, be it our assessment of a new friend in class, what group to take in high school or which of two parties to attend, among other tougher life decisions. Here are some of the cognitive short-cuts that we tend to take in decision-making which do help in making efficient decisions many times but  still often fall prey to biases and errors.

     Consider a situation in which you hear about tragic road traffic accidents on and off. Such disturbing information is high on vividness, not a very usual occurrence and is quite emotionally charged, thereby having a strong impact on our memory. When it comes to deciding whether you want to go on a cross country road trip or even buy your own vehicle one day you may falter and decide otherwise based on the availability of only negative examples of driving in your mind. Such a type of decision-making short-cut is termed availability heuristic (heuristic=short-cut).

     Assuming you have a new neighbour who looks intelligent, is very social, has headphones on most of the time and has wild, hair in a “I store my creativity in my unkempt curls” kind of way , what would you evaluate his occupation to be given a choice between Band Musician and Medicine? You may lean more towards the first option, given his characteristics which are more representative of that occupation but if you had to consider the actual proportion of medical students to students of music, the chances of him being the latter is more! The success of this heuristic thus largely lies on how well we can balance representativeness and probability in answering a question.

     Going with popular preferences (e.g in music and technology) is another short-cut to deciding. Some situations do not afford us the luxury of deliberating logically and in such instances we go by our gut feeling. If our emotions at the moment, in response to the situation is positive, we assume the risks are low and the gains are high, which is a very helpful, energy-conserving heuristic but it may lead us into harm in some unusual situations such as when students decide to smoke just because it is “cool” or it is what your friends do and we just assume cancer will not affect us, just the guy standing next to us!

     A very important and relevant type of cognitive miserliness is stereotyping, which is when we attribute certain qualities to people belonging to a certain group. Beliefs about a particular race or religion, if strong enough, affect the way in which we assess any person belonging to that group, without paying any attention to the individual characteristic of that person. It is very important to be mindful of using this heuristic in social interactions so as to keep from behaving in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner.