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Challenging your thoughts roots out irrational errors and leads to better decision making

Have you ever decided that you like someone based solely on your gut feeling? (affect heuristic) Do you ever think that you’re sick even after receiving the all clear from the doctor just because you momentarily felt an unusual physical sensation? (confirmation bias) Have you ever smoked, gambled, drunk, or eaten chocolate and then decided to keep going to excess because you have already gone this far? (commitment heuristic) Have you ever decided to buy a certain item just because there were not many left on the shelf? (choice overload) Have you ever bought clothes hoping to change your style only to find yourself wearing the same old jeans and t-shirt? (diversification bias) Would you be more inclined to use a condom advertised as 95% effective rather than as having a 5% risk of failure? (framing effect) Have you ever thought that someone is a nice person purely because they are attractive? (halo effect) Have you ever called an ex because you listened to a song on the radio that reminded you of them? (priming) Have you ever got more dishes than you would normally in a restaurant because you were starving hungry when the waiter took your order? (projection bias) When you have a positive customer service experience, do you tend to show greater regard for the company? (representativeness heuristic) And, have you ever bought something because a celebrity has endorsed it? (social proof)

If you are a human like the rest of us, then you will have answered yes to many of the above questions because we are all hardwired to think in certain ways. Every day our brain is bombarded with an incredible amount of information but we can only focus on one thing at a time. So, while we are able to consciously think about a few thing, the rest of the time our brain relies on shortcuts to help us make quick decisions and keep up with the pace of life.

These unconscious mental shortcuts are called heuristics and we wouldn’t be able to get through a single day without them. But there is a catch. Although sometimes helpful, they can bias our decision making so that we fail to produce a correct judgment. Such irrational decision making is evident in several ways including how we shop, invest, treat other people, and choose romantic partners, and, naturally, it can affect how we feel (excited, sad, happy, stressed, scared, etc.) and how we behave.

Such biases were first identified by Daniel Kahneman’s revolutionary work with Amos Tversky on human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty, which won Kahneman the Nobel prize. Kahneman and Tversky started working together in the late 1960s, exploring these biases in human decision making in small-scale empirical experiments that demonstrated how people make irrational decisions under uncertain conditions. Their work not only led to the development of a new approach to economic theory, called behavioural economics, but enhanced our knowledge of judgment and decision-making in every aspect of life.

But if their hardwired and ‘only human’, what can we do about these irrational errors that affect our decision making? We can simply take the time to ask ourselves: “Is there another way to look at this?” By adopting a more effortful and slow approach to any decisions, we can counteract the biases that may otherwise influence us.

The following list of questions can help. At least one, if not several, of them will be relevant each time we need to cultivate a different perspective on a certain situation before we make up our mind about it.

  • What are the exceptions to this thought?
  • What might a more optimistic friend of mine say?
  • How important will this be to me in a year’s time?
  • Am I thinking in black and white terms?
  • Am I thinking in absolute terms such as “everything”, “nothing”, “no-one,” or “everybody”?
  • Am I only paying attention to certain evidence and disregarding other relevant evidence?
  • Am I discounting any positive aspects of the situation?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions by attempting to read others’ minds or predict the future?
  • Am I blowing things out of proportion?
  • Am I thinking this just because you feel a certain way?
  • Am I thinking about myself or others using critical and inflexible words like “should” or “must”?
  • Am I assigning labels to myself or others?
  • Am I blaming myself too much and ignoring the role of other people or am I blaming others for something that was my fault?

These questions can help us discover other ways to view a situation, which will allow us to make more informed decisions and better choices about how to respond. Over time, this strategy can have a long-term effect on our wellbeing as it can help us challenge thoughts and avoid actions that may have an impact on how we feel, as well as how we behave towards ourselves and others. By carrying out this simple exercise, we open up space for reflection and put ourselves in charge so we don’t get pushed and pulled around by our own automatic and often biased thoughts. Surely a powerful skill to adopt!

NB: This article won the Let’s Science competition and was originally published here in Greek.  



Dr Patapia Tzotzoli

Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.

Dr Patapia TzotzoliMedical LiveWire Award Winner

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