Mental Habits: Taking the Shortcut (Part 1)

How do we make our dozens of daily decisions?

Posted Aug 17, 2009

In a new series of posts, I consider thinking habits that I call "mental shortcuts."

Everyday, you make important decisions about your life. On Monday, you consider buying a new car. On Tuesday, you compare life insurance policies. On Wednesday, you are asked to donate to charity. Will you give? How much? All the time, you make decisions about your health. Some experts say that drinking red wine is good for you. Should you start drinking more of it? I did, but that might be for other reasons . . .

Sometimes your decisions are right and sometimes they are wrong. But you are right enough of the time to have a decent life. You even have a little bit of fun now and then. You have time to read interesting blogs. Like this one. But how do you manage it? After all, the world is a complicated place that is getting more complicated all the time. To see how complicated, consider what is involved in making just one decision.

Sometimes, I need to rent a car for work. Yes, professors are allowed to leave campus. But we usually go straight to other universities, where we are in meetings all day. So, no need to worry about our being loose on the streets! When I rent a car, I am given the chance to buy extra insurance. There is an upside to buying the insurance. If I am in an accident, I don't have to deal with my insurance company. There is a downside. It costs!

Imagine that you are making the decision about extra insurance. Take a minute to write down the questions that you would ask yourself.

Here is my list of questions:

1. When was the last time I was in an accident?

2. What are the driving conditions today? Tomorrow?

3. How familiar am I with this car?

4. How much city driving will I do?

5. If I turn down the extra coverage and get into an accident, how much will my rates go up?

6. What is the rental company's take?

Your list was probably similar to mine. Now, you have to answer all of your questions, combine those answers, and make your decision. How do you do that? Not just for this decision, but for all the decisions that you make everyday?

Taking the Shortcut

You don't. If you did, you wouldn't get much further than deciding what to have for breakfast each day. Instead, you take mental shortcuts. In this series of blog posts, you will learn about some of the mental shortcuts that you take everyday.

You have a six-sided die. Four of the sides are green and two are red. Here are three sequences that could occur when the die is rolled.

Sequence One: RGRRR

Sequence Two: GRGRRR

Sequence Three: GRRRRR

Which sequence is most likely? Which one would you bet on?

Before you read on, make your choice. If you are like most people, you chose Sequence Two (I did). But that is the wrong choice! You should have picked Sequence One.

Here's why. Sequence One (RGRRR) is part of Sequence Two (GRGRRR). Just add a "G" to the beginning of Sequence One and you have Sequence Two. Sneaky, huh? That means it is impossible for Sequence Two to be more likely than Sequence One. After all, Sequence One (RGRRR) will sometimes be part of a sequence that starts with a red side coming up (example: RRGRRR). So, Sequence One will occur more often than will Sequence Two. Makes sense, right? By the way, Sequence Three is the wrong choice because it is the least likely of the three.

Why did you bet on Sequence Two when, if you only took a moment, you would have bet on Sequence One? Psychologists have an answer. In my next post: The answer and more on mental shortcuts.

For more writing by yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.