Estimating and Guesstimating The Power Of Mental Shortcuts

Everyone likes a shortcut, whether its a faster way to get home from work in the evening or a quick weight loss diet plan. We all like to get results fast. Our brain’s are no exception to this. While there are some things such as regulating heartbeat and blood pressure that our brain’s can’t skimp on there is plenty that it can. This is estimating and guesstimating come in, in the psychology realm their known as heuristics.

Heuristics are the processes the brain uses to make estimations about something but only after it has stockpiled enough support through previous instances. While heuristics are helpful since they allow for snap judgments and ‘gut feelings’ they can also be very damaging since our snap judgments and ‘gut feelings’ are not always right.

Right or wrong heuristics come in three basic variations, representative, anchoring, and availability.

Representative Heuristics: Where stereotypes are born…

The representative heuristic is what allows us to say, if it looks like a dog, and smells like a dog, it’s a dog. It’s also what allows jurors to decide that the blurred man they watched on the video of the store robbery is the same man sitting in front of them awaiting conviction. Or that the brown-skinned man speaking on his cell phone in line behind you is a terrorist, despite those conclusions being entirely false.

Anchoring Heuristics: Why it’s so hard to change someone’s mind…

As the name suggest the anchoring heuristic involves making estimations on how likely an event is to occur based on a previously determined likeliness. Consider the following, it has rained all week, it’s now Saturday morning and you’ve been invited to the beach. You may have already decided that it is extremely likely that it is going to rain today. Your friend tells you that it’s a beautiful day outside and that there isn’t a rain cloud in sight, you may now shift  from thinking it is extremely likely to thinking it is likely. This subtle shift based off of your previous estimation is the anchoring heuristic at work.

Availability Heuristic: The media’s best friend…

Take a moment and recall as many instances as you can of the media reporting a successful flight.  You probably can’t think of many if at all, now take a moment and recall as many instances as you can of the media reporting an unsuccessful one. This is much easier to recall, if you’re having trouble with that one try this one. How many instances can you recall of the media reporting economic growth an increase in jobs etc. Maybe a handful of instances, now try to recall instances of the media reporting economic collapse, decreases in jobs, increases in unemployment etc. Those instances are so fresh that they require almost no effort to bring forth.

This is the availability heuristic, it is the mind’s tendency to make decisions and judgments based on how easily it is to recall something, regardless of how often it occurs in life. The availability heuristic is why it’s so easy for you or your significant other, or parent, or child to recall all the instances of wrong doing, and to label each other as a ‘horrible person.’ For the most part the majority of people treat their loved ones good, so good that good becomes the norm, and the few times something that is perceived as wrong occurs it becomes a spectacle in the victims mind that will be remembered.

Heuristics are only one of the many techniques used by the brain to process all the information we are constantly exposed to. And while for the most part they are employed to our benefit, such as skipping the first gas station in favor of the second which is usually cheaper they can also be used against us. Being aware of them and being able to identify when your brain is relying on them is one more step in becoming more aware of how your own mind works.

Whether you are anchoring yourself like a ship coming to a stop, allowing your affection for someone to grow by recalling their love, or relying on stereotypes and assumptions to avoid dangerous situations, heuristics are there to be used. So use them.

I Was Just Following Orders…

“I was just following orders,” how often are those five words uttered in defense of crimes committed during both war and peace times. It’s a phrase everyone is familiar with, and one that has both let men go free and sentenced them to a life in prison. Despite the immediate attachment those words have with war crimes and acts of torture the situations that create them occur on an almost daily basis to everyone everywhere.

When children go to bed at nine, after brushing their teeth and preparing their bags for school the next day, they are in essence ‘just following orders.’ When a person hands their license and registration over to an officer that has pulled them over they are also ‘just following orders.’ When a gang initiate robs a corner store to prove his worth he is also ‘just following orders,’ but what about when the robbery goes a step further and becomes a homicide. Is he still ‘just following orders,’ or is he now acting according to his own free will?

This is where the power of situational factors come into play. At any given time there can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as hundreds. However, there are a few in particular that play a significant role in allowing people to ‘just follow orders.’ The first, and most universal is the need to belong, everyone has this need whether we acknowledge it or not we all want to belong to something and someone.

The desperate teenager joins the gang because of the need to belong to something bigger than himself, something bigger than the small home that holds too many people with too little resources. The child prepares for bed because of the need to belong to his/her family, the need to gain the approval of his/her parents, and the inherent idolization of their parents. A person handing over their license and registration may do so because they feel hopeless to alter the situation and the pending outcome. The opposite is also true, the officer feels obligated to process the person’s information and crime because he/she is part of something bigger than themselves, something that is for the betterment of their family, their society and a host of other things.

That is what allows the soldiers to torture their prisoners, the fearful teen to rob the grocer his family has purchased groceries from his entire life, the naive child to do as they are told whether they want to or not. It is all fueled by the belief that the actions performed are for the betterment of [insert cause of your choice]. It’s only when their behaviors and actions are questioned by a higher authority, that “I am just following orders,” is given as the reasoning.

So if we are all ‘just following orders’ in one way or another, how can we hold each other accountable for the actions we are ordered to commit? How can the teen be held accountable for the robbery and possible murder, the customer service rep held accountable for luring a client into an extended warranty, the solider for mistreating prisoners that he has been trained to think of as less than human.

This is the power of situational factors, they allow people to reach a sense of defused responsibility. “I didn’t want to burn that man I was ordered to,” “I didn’t want to rob that store, I had to,” “I don’t care if you buy the extended warranty, its company policy.”  When the personal sense of responsibility is low, and a powerful external identity is present it becomes frighteningly easy for people to engage in actions they would never be capable of under different circumstances.

“I was just following orders,” is a useful and ready reasoning to fall back on when being held accountable, the question is, how much of it was orders and how much of it was real?


The Goths, The Nerds, The Jocks, The Preps…

The Goths, The Nerds ,The Jocks, The Preps, The Hipsters: Identity

Whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we chose to or not we are all part of a group. Being the social creatures that we are humans automatically form and identify themselves with groups, whether it be familial, political, educational, social, orientation, culture, or fashion. We all navigate our days by shifting through our many group identities and interacting with the members of those groups.

It is not even necessary to leave the comfort of your own home to find groups. Households are composed of numerous groups that are constantly interacting with each other and battling for dominance. Whether it be the familial group as a whole, the parental group, the child parent group, the child pet group, the sibling group, the list goes on and on. Groups are everywhere, even when we perceive ourselves to be alone, we are identifying with a group.

At its most basic form grouping boils down to the ‘in’ and the ‘out.’ Consider the following scenario, you and a dozen others are attending a training seminar for a cooperation you hope to work for. Initially everyone may be milling about, inspecting refreshments, some people may stand closer to others, or everyone may have their own personal space. Either way there is a general dissociated feeling of everyone ‘being in this together’ or you may view everyone else as the competition immediately forming a group of 1.

Eventually someone speaks to someone else, this causes an immediate change in social dynamics. There is now an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group, if you have yet to speak to anyone and the general feeling of ‘being in this together’ is present you are immediately placed in what you perceive to be the majority ‘in’ group. The two speaking are now the ‘out’ group, you no longer identify with them and become wary of them. In essence they have become ‘the enemy.’

Now look at it from the pairs perspective, they have each made a friend and have become slightly more comfortable with the situation. They now have someone to share their immediate worries, expectations and goals with. Their anxiety has decreased while their confidence and subsequent performance has increased. In their eyes they are the ‘in’ group while everyone else is the ‘out’ group.

Within the larger group of strangers there is a sense of diffusion of responsibility, no one in particular feels as if they should be the one to initiate conversations because “somebody else will do it.” Whereas within the pair there is a heightened sense of responsibility and expectation, the group is small enough that each member can hold the other accountable and they are more likely to seek out and bring others into their group.

The group dynamics will slowly shift until there is a change in perceived power, now the more social pair group with its three or four members is perceived to be superior, while the larger group of strangers is perceived to be inferior. This is the power of group identity,  a very powerful factor in determining group success and persistence. The stronger the feeling of belonging is in a group, the stronger the sense of their being a group, the more empowered each individual becomes in carrying out actions through the name of that group.

Group identity is just one of the many factors that play a role in grouping, and it is arguably the most important one in retaining, recruiting, and enabling members of a group. The perception that someone belongs to something is a powerful motivator as long as that something is clearly defined.

Grouping and group identity can also cause someone to behave in ways that they would never behave in under different circumstances. Someone who is relatively shy and does not strike up conversation with strangers, is much more likely to if they are part of a group that is based around making new friends as long as they act under the identity of the group. Because their identity (locus of control) shifts from being themselves to being the group.

I am no longer John McShyAlot I am now John the PR man for SocialBeings Incorporated.

As you can see successfully identifying with a strongly defined group can have powerful effects on your behavior, thought process, and performance levels. While in the ideal world such a powerful psychology phenomenon would be used for good, it is more often the case that group identity is used to influence others to behave in negative ways, such as murder, robberies, vandalism and other crimes.

Whether its our group at home, our group in traffic, or our group at work we are all part of many groups, and form new ones without so much as a conscious thought. Being aware of these groups and how they can and do influence your behavior is key to gaining a better understanding of yourself and the things you identify with.

So ask yourself, which group are you apart of?

Are You Really In Control

John, a sophomore in college is about to take a chemistry test. He’s fairly comfortable with the information but worried that he won’t do well, (he went partying the night before and the professor has a reputation for being a somewhat difficult grader). The next day John finds out that he barely passed the test. Which of the following do you think is the reason for John’s success?

  1. The professor was lenient in grading
  2. He’s a good student and studied well

Did you answer 1 or 2?

The question has to do with helping to determine your locus of control. Locus of control is one of the four elements of core self-evaluation, which is used by psychologist as the foundation for understanding personality. It pertains to determining to what degree someone thinks they can control events that affect them. Someone with an internal locus of control would explain their success at something by saying they worked hard, studied hard, prepared, etc. Someone with an internal locus who failed at something would say that they didn’t prepare enough, or didn’t try hard enough.

As a whole these are the people we tend to admire, the ones we refer to as having ‘character’ or ‘drive.’ In stories those with an internal locus of control are our accomplished heroes, they are the ones we admire for going from an external to an internal locus.

But what is an external locus of control? Those of us with an external locus of control tend to attribute our successes and failures to as the name suggest external reasons. “I failed because such and such did x, I succeeded because I’m lucky, or Fran went easy on me.” These are all explanations that focus on outside influences and fall into the external locus space.

Despite what our very base locus of control may be, we go through both external and internal phases throughout the day. Consider when you are out shopping at the mall and see sale sign, or come across what seems to be a really good deal. In these instances of excitement and high stimulation our locus of control shifts to external. We are no longer aware of how much our budget is, or what we originally came to the mall for, we’re now focused on the external stimuli, such as that nice shirt or those new shoes.

Even when doing something as simple as watching a game, that feeling of being ‘involved’ in the game, when we feel as if we are actually there. Those are instances of external locus of control, we are no longer aware of our selves, but rather of the group that we are watching.

Think back to the last time you felt accomplished, tired, energetic, happy, sad, powerful, these are all instances of internal locus of control. Thinking back about what you’ve done today is another instance of internal, feeling sleepy, waking up, feeling invigorated after your cup(s) of coffee. Internal locus of control simply means we are paying more attention to our self, rather than to what is going on around us.

When going to make a major purchase, such as a car, we may go in thinking, “ok I want this car, with such and such feature,” or “I’m not looking at cars that cost more than $$$) these are all internal focuses. However, when we meet the car salesmen we are immediately shifted and most likely kept in an external focus. The smile, the warm handshake, the clear confident voice, allowing ourselves to be led by someone, the dazzle of the polished cars, the leather seats, the nice sound system, the chance to take the car for a spin.

All of this keeps our focus externally, which can be a dangerous thing when it comes to major expenses or purchases. Keeping the focus on the car, and how much it’ll supposedly improve your life is a great way to forget your internal focus and the things that matter in the long run such as costs.

While there are instances where it is good to have and maintain an internal focus, such as making life impacting decisions. There are also times when its good to have an external focus, ever have a good time at a party when you were preoccupied with thoughts of your ex? Or of the list of things you have to do the next day? That’s an instance where having an external focus works in your favor as it allows you to forget everything and just “go with the flow,” as they say.

Regardless of whether you are primarily external or internal, being aware of and utilizing both at the right times will only work in your favor. Also being mindful of yourself, will help you to become more mindful of others and lead a more satisfying and fulfilling life.

Having CD And What It Means For You

Studies show that one million out of one million people have, continue to have, and experience CD, a state of distress also known as Cognitive Dissonance. CD can occur at any point in life and is not  dependent on age, race, health, social economic status, marital status, or pet ownership status. CD can occur at any time, anywhere, there have even been instances of CD occurring in sleep during dreaming.

Signs include:

Experiencing various levels of anxiety and distress depending on the degree of CD

Tightening around the eyes and mouth


Ruffling of the hair

Bouts of anger

And other distressing behaviors

What causes CD:

CD is caused by a misalignment between what someone believes, and what they do. For instance, say you go shopping with the intention of not spending more than sixty dollars since you need the rest to pay off a pending bill. At the end of your shopping day you’ve spent one hundred and twenty dollars, twice the amount you intended. The subsequent feelings of anxiety, distress, and maybe disappointment are all manifestations of CD.

However, there are defenses against experiencing CD, and techniques that can be used to decrease the amount of CD experienced. The simplest is to view your belief from a different perspective, or to even modify your belief. Viewing from a different perspective is akin to looking at the silver lining, instead of ruminating on the fact that you’ve spent twice what you were allowed, you can instead focus on the value of the items purchased and how they will help improve your life.

If this doesn’t help then it’s probably a good idea to return the items before it’s too late.

Modifying your beliefs: This is a bit more energy intensive with the amount of energy needed to do so varying depending on how deeply held and fundamental the belief is to your identity. If for instance you believe that car brand X is the best, purchase a car from brand X and then within a month that car develops an unforseen problem. It is easy to say, well car brand X may not be the best, but they are one of the best.

This takes relatively little energy to do, and can be made easier by keeping the admission private. However, if you hold strong beliefs against same-sex marriage, and a close family member, (your child perhaps) wants to have a same-sex marriage you will find yourself experiencing an extreme amount of dissonance as two fundamental beliefs collide. The first being your belief/wish for your child to be happy and have the best life possible, and the second being your stance against same-sex marriage.

If the first belief wins you will have to invest a considerable amount of energy into changing not only how you think and feel about same-sex marriage, but also behaviors that express your dislike for it, such as facial expressions, body stances, gestures etc.

CD is a fundamental aspect of life that occurs dozens of times throughout someone’s day whether its having cereal instead of the intended eggs for breakfast, or lying to your significant other or spouse when you normally tell the truth. It can also have varying effects on our psyche, and body language. While in some instances it is easy enough to keep one’s thoughts to oneself, subtle clues in body language reveal things that we aren’t even aware are being revealed.

Cognitive Dissonance is experienced by everyone, and being aware of it and what causes it can help us to be that much truer to ourselves, and can also help reveal beliefs and stances that we may not have been previously aware of.

You Scratch My Back I’ll Scratch Yours

Imagine that you run into an acquaintance, a coworker perhaps, and they ask you for a dollar to use on the vending machine. Imagine also, that you were just about to use that dollar to get a snack for yourself. How likely are you to lend the dollar? Not very likely, especially if it is just an acquaintance that you haven’t had much interaction with.

Now imagine this, your acquaintance once again seeks you out for a dollar. But, just last week this same person let you borrow a dollar, now how likely are you to comply? Likely, very likely, extremely likely? What is it that compels us to comply, to ‘return a favor’ or do something nice for someone who we may or may not even know on a personal level.

That, is reciprocity, which is when we feel compelled, and do, provide benefits to those who have previously benefited us. Those few times that we don’t give in to reciprocity are when we experience what is known as cognitive dissonance.

Where is reciprocity occurring?

To help answer this question I’ll provide you with a real life example that happened to me this past weekend. I was at a restaurant with some friends, our waitress had been generally friendly, seemingly going out of her way to make sure we enjoyed our time there, and just being an above average waitress in general.

When she handed us each our bill we all noticed that she had drawn each of us a personal emoticon (smiley face). My friend who opened his bill first immediately exclaimed that he would be leaving a larger tip than he intended, just because of the smiley face. While I agreed with him it also made me think about reciprocity, and how powerful it can be.

Setting all other psychological and environmental factors aside this is a prime example of how doing something nice for someone can have a surprisingly good payoff whether expected or not. Between the three of us, she must have pocketed twenty dollars in tip, compared to the seven to ten dollars she would have totaled had she not drawn the smiley faces.

Advanced forms of reciprocity:

Ever heard of the ‘foot in the door technique’ chances are you have, and it conjures up images of vacuum salesmen trying to convince stay at home moms to listen to their sales pitch and maybe buy that new vacuum they’ve needed.

Foot In The Door Technique, is officially defined as a method of compliance in which you ask for something small first, and after getting the person to comply, follow up with requests that gradually increase in size.

In order to make this even more effective you tailor your first request to something that just about everyone agrees to, out of habit or impulse. Something such as, “hey do you have the time,” everyone agrees to that. You then follow that request up with what you really want, which leaves you at a much better chance of getting it than if you asked for what you really want straight off the bat.

Foot in the door isn’t the only technique, there’s also its twin the Door in the face technique.  What this technique boils down to is asking for something large followed by something smaller, which is what you truly want. The psychology behind this is that the person being acted upon, will begin to feel as if the person asking has compromised with them.

That belief that a compromise has just occurred makes the ‘target’ much more likely to comply and give the person asking what they want. A life example of this would be negotiating the price of something, such as a car you are privately selling. Let’s say you think the car is only worth five thousand, but you really want to get six thousand out of the deal.

So you set the sticker price at seven or eight thousand fully expecting prospective buyers to negotiate the price lower. You and the person meet up, you say, “seven thousand,” the person says, “I’ll buy it for five thousand five hundred.” You then proceed to hesitate, act as if you’re considering and contemplating, and express that you would really like to sell for seven. Finally you say, “ok ok, I’ll give it to you for six thousand right now.”

The buyer agrees and the car is sold. Within that last bit of dialogue are actually three different psychological phenomenons. “Ok, ok” gives the buyer the sense that you are compromising by selling the car for less than you actually want. Getting the buyer to think you are compromising makes them see you as a much more agreeable person.

“I’ll give it to you,” this creates a sense of indebtedness on the buyer’s part. In this context saying I’ll give it to you, reinforces the belief that you are compromising and doing something that is in the buyers interest. It also shifts the focus from what type of deal is occurring, instead of the buyer thinking they are making a large purchase they now begin to feel as if they are being given something, which creates the need for reciprocity.

“Right now,” this particular phrasing comes in many shapes and sizes and is used by advertisers and salesmen everywhere. Saying, “right now,” creates an immediate sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. Coupled with the belief of compromising and indebtedness you immediately corner the buyer making them feel as if this is a deal that won’t recur. Also if the buyer needs the car, and can’t afford to purchase one from a dealership then you suddenly have that more of an advantage in your negotiating power.

These are just a few of the many factors that go into successful persuasion. Becoming more aware of these factors will allow you to be a smarter buyer and better negotiator. These skills can also be applied to other aspects of life, such as reaching a compromise in a fight with your significant other or spouse, or getting your child to behave.


The Fundamental Attribution Error

We’re starting today’s post with two scenes, the first paragraph of each is the same, the second paragraph is different.

Version 1

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate, he glances down and picks it up just as a car swerves in front of him. John slams on the breaks, cursing at the driver that nearly side swiped him, “dumbass” he mutters turning back to the message on his phone.

Version 2

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate. He ignores the phone and keeps his attention on the road, out of the corner of his eye he notices a car attempting to past him. “No you don’t,” he mutters and speeds up, the car slams on its breaks, the screech of the tires and roar of the horn are pierced by the short scream of a woman. John glances in his rear view mirror, the car has come to a dead stop, in front of it the body a woman lays crumpled on the ground.

The obvious difference in these scenes is John’s decision to keep the car from passing, and the dead woman. However, we’re interested in a more subtle difference in the scene’s, which is John’s interpretation of the driver that attempts to get in front of him. In the first scene the car succeeds, John labels the driver as rude and foolish, in the second he is too shocked to label the driver as anything, and feels guilty for not allowing the driver to pass.

This act of labeling, of assuming someone’s behavior is a direct indicator to the type of person they are is known as the fundamental attribution error or FAE. Fundamental attribution error is not limited to behaviors that are interpreted in a negative way, it can also apply to positive behaviors.

If we see a man, helping an elderly woman cross the street, we will automatically assume he is a nice man with good intentions. When in actuality, he is helping her to earn her trust for an impending con.

Being aware of FAE and how it influences your perception of those around you can help you remember that our actions are not always a direct indication of our character or personality.

FAE influences our perceptions of everyone, from politicians, to pets, to characters in a book, FAE occurs on a near constant basis. The effects it has on us become stronger when our lives settle into routine and the need for active thinking decreases. However, you don’t have to be subject to it all the time.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings, or that of the person can go a long way in explaining why they behaved a certain way, and can help to keep you from assuming the worst of a nice person, or trusting someone who is just out to get you.