You don't intentionally act against your best interests. But unintentionally? We do it all the time.
I present four of the most common triggers of irrationality - the FAUX Illusions. These are subconscious impulses and distortions that can lead us to make bad decisions, impairing our ability to achieve our goals and live our values.
The FAUX Illusions
Fear is a necessary and potentially life-saving survival instinct. It causes a host of physiological changes that prepare us to “fight or flight.” Because we have the instinct to avoid anything that may be potentially dangerous, we experience fear even when we are not threatened.
Many in the media and political sphere work hard to invoke fear in us because they know that will get our attention. Attention translates to clicks and votes. Our attention locks on to anything we deem a threat and magnifies it, making it feel bigger and more important than it truly is. If we are told something or someone might harm us, we want to find out more so we can protect ourselves from the boogeyman.
Much like the media and politicians, your primitive “lizard brain” itself is most interested in its own survival. Truth and reality? Not so much. So it ramps up the emotion to get you to act on its agenda - keeping you alive. Unfortunately, irrational fear can make us risk averse and keep us from leaving our status quo comfort zone.
Making assumptions is a huge trigger for many of our cognitive biases. It only occurs when we feel uncertainty, that important information is unavailable.
For example, when we meet someone new we get a first impression of whether or not they are trustworthy. If we had positive prior experiences with them or if someone we trust found them trustworthy, we would have something to go because there is less uncertainty. Otherwise, we have to make a guess.
Because our primitive subconscious instincts are focused on safety, when we have uncertainty about someone and their intentions we are likely to produce at least a hint of a negative feeling or notion about them. No need for actual evidence to support this suspicion - it just happens.
But because the brain abhors uncertainty, that negative notion gets converted into an assumption. We assume the person is a threat (untrustworthy) until we get more information to give us a clearer picture of their trustworthiness.
Our assumptions often do not reflect reality so we need to be aware of our urge to jump to conclusions. To avoid the detrimental effects assumptions have on our relationships and decision making, embrace uncertainty without forming judgments.
It’s pretty tough to catch a wild animal, especially a mammal. They’re too fast for us. Good for them because speed keeps them alive - they can outrun their predators. Any potentially dangerous stimuli spurs them to act immediately.
While we humans are not as physically fast by comparison, we still have the subconscious impulse to decide and act fast. This is especially true when our emotions are heightened (such as by irrational fear).
This bias toward urgency is why we dislike uncertainty. Uncertainty slows us down because it makes decision making more complex. But this bias can cause us to take mental shortcuts (heuristics). These are helpful when we face real danger but can be counter-productive and cause us to make suboptimal - even harmful - decisions.
One of our uniquely human traits is our capacity to predict the future. If you do A, then B will happen. It’s the heart of decision making. We’re pretty good at it with short-term predictions. Long-term predictions are not very accurate because of the many unknown variables that affect outcomes.
Expectations are the result of predictions and assumptions, but again these are influenced at the subconscious level. Cognitive biases can cause us to misinterpret data and create false expectations. Investing is a prime example, A fund or individual stock has great returns one year so you invest in it expecting it to continue to rise and make you a lot of money. But remember the investing mantra - past performance does not guarantee future results.
One predictive area where we commonly fail is when we think about our future happiness. The thought of winning the lottery or suffering a breakup creates an impression of a future you who is much more (or much less) happy than you are now. But studies show that after the initial jolt, our happiness tends to return to the same level.
Also be aware that how you will feel about an outcome or event is related to your expectation relative to it, not the objective reality. Lower expectations can create higher levels of future satisfaction, at least in the short-term.
It’s worth keeping the FAUX Illusions in mind when you are forming judgments and making decisions. Fear, assumptions, urgency, and expectations all have illusory effects that can thwart your ability to perform at your best.
So be careful out there.
- Steve Haffner
Mind performance strategist
Want to learn more about improving your decision making and performance?
Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions