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Lifestyle: Our brains take shortcuts and sometimes get it wrong

03 May 2018

Our brains often take shortcuts when we are trying to assess a new situation. These shortcuts go through our emotional brains. A shortcut is an emotional response rather than an analytical one. It is sometimes referred to as our right (emotional) or left (analytical) brain.

Our emotional brain is a lot faster than our analytical brain and it therefore uses a lot less energy than our analytical brain.

If our brain can solve a problem with its emotional apparatus it will, every time, taking a fraction of the energy and time it would take to think it through and analyse it fully. Talk about lazy!

In a ‘sudden danger’ situation one has to respond rapidly and in this case the emotional decision, to fight or flee, is the correct one. It is when we have the time and resources to analyse a situation and we take a short-cut, the quick emotional route, that the trouble starts.

Scientists call the mental shortcuts we make ‘biases’. For example, you see a child sitting alone in a parked car. Immediately we assume that something is wrong. Is the child alright? Where is the neglectful parent? And then the father walks out from behind the car having just put a pram in the boot. That example might describe a situation where our initial response was helpful. But if we acted on our first impulse and tried to open the car door to rescue the child it would have been embarrassing, at the very least.

When it comes to our brain, what works in sudden danger situations can be a hinderance when it comes to important decisions in life. This is the darker side of mental biases. For instance, cultural or gender biases can become deep-seated in our brains when we have habitually been lazy and not thought through, or not properly analysed, situations involving other cultures or genders in the past. These quick, emotional responses lead us to draw inaccurate conclusions that are incomplete and sometimes harmful.

For example, recent research has shown that we often assume that people are competent because they appear competent, they sound as though they are competent whereas they may just be extrovert, talk a lot or be over-confident.

Our brains can instinctively trust people simply because they sound as if they know what they are talking about. A study showed that people put more weight on how much people talked than on actual evidence of expertise. A good example of a unhelpful mental bias at work.

As with many of our biases, we can’t see ourselves. We don’t know we have them. They have become a part of who we are. Knowing we are vulnerable to these deceptions might be a help in overcoming them.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us here about who we trust. We could ask ourselves when we deal with people who project confidence and dominate the conversation, do they really have the credentials to support first impressions? They might be over-compensating for other deficiencies. It might be good to seek a second opinion?

These mental biases are just a part of life. We all have to live with them. Hopefully we learn, as we get older, that first (quick) impressions can often be wrong.

Keep asking great questions …

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