The Psychology of Attitudes – Biases and Mental Shortcuts

I enjoy every minute of studying psychology, and this semester, I am all in on the topics of attitudes, persuasion and mental health. Let me share a few interesting cognitive biases with you – to check on yourself and your critical thinking quickly. There are so many people trying to influence us at any given time of the day (most of the time without any bad intent). Sometimes, we ourselves are our worst enemies because of laziness and taking “the quick route”. It’s normal, and the process is what weโ€™d refer to as a heuristic (a mental shortcut)

Heuristics are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that help us make quick judgments and decisions in various situations. They are cognitive strategies that simplify complex problems by relying on previous experiences and information. Letโ€™s make it quick and simple, here are 20 heuristics commonly discussed in psychology, along with real-life examples to illustrate them. All on point, no fluff.

20 Mental Shortcuts – to take or not to take, that is the question

  1. Availability Heuristic: People tend to judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can recall similar instances. For example, after hearing news reports of a plane crash, people may overestimate the risks of flying.
  2. Representativeness Heuristic: This heuristic involves categorizing something based on how closely it resembles a typical example or prototype. For instance, assuming someone who wears glasses, reads books, and is introverted must be a professor, even though they could be a librarian or a software developer.
  3. Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic: This heuristic refers to the tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making judgments or estimates. When negotiating the price of a car, the initial asking price sets an anchor, influencing subsequent negotiations.
  4. Confirmation Bias: This bias involves seeking and interpreting information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while ignoring contradictory evidence. For instance, a person who holds a strong political opinion may only pay attention to news sources that align with their views.
  5. Halo Effect: This bias occurs when an initial impression of a person, often based on one trait, influences our overall judgment of their character. For example, assuming that a physically attractive person is also intelligent and kind.
  6. Sunk Cost Fallacy: This heuristic refers to the tendency to continue investing time, money, or effort into something because we have already invested in it, even when it no longer seems worthwhile. Continuing to watch a movie that you find boring simply because you’ve already paid for the ticket is an example of the sunk cost fallacy.
  7. Recency Effect: This effect describes the tendency to remember and give more weight to information encountered recently. In a multi-day music competition, judges may be more influenced by the performances they heard most recently.
  8. Framing Effect: The framing effect refers to the influence of how information is presented, or framed, on decision-making. For instance, people are more likely to choose a product described as “90% fat-free” rather than one labeled as “10% fat.”
  9. Self-Serving Bias: This bias involves attributing successes to our own abilities and failures to external factors. For example, when we succeed in a project, we may attribute it to our intelligence and hard work, while blaming failure on external circumstances.
  10. Primacy Effect: This effect refers to the tendency to remember and give more weight to information encountered first. In a job interview, the interviewer may form a lasting impression based on the candidate’s initial responses.
  11. Authority Heuristic: People often rely on perceived authority figures or experts to guide their decision-making. Accepting a medical treatment because it is recommended by a renowned doctor is an example of the authority heuristic.
  12. Overconfidence Bias: This bias involves having excessive confidence in our own abilities, judgments, or knowledge. For instance, a person may overestimate their driving skills and engage in risky behaviors.
  13. False Consensus Effect: This bias occurs when we overestimate the extent to which others share our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. Assuming that most people in your social circle hold the same political views as you is an example of the false consensus effect.
  14. Social Proof: This heuristic refers to the tendency to conform to the behavior of others in a given situation. Choosing a crowded restaurant over an empty one because we assume it must be good is an example of social proof.
  15. Base Rate Fallacy: This fallacy occurs when we ignore the base rate or general information about a population and focus instead on specific information or individual cases. For instance, assuming a person must be a lawyer because they exhibit traits associated with lawyers, even though there are far fewer lawyers than other professions.
  16. Escalation of Commitment: This heuristic describes the tendency to continue investing in a failing course of action, often due to a desire to justify previous investments. Staying in a toxic relationship because of the time and effort already invested is an example of escalation of commitment.
  17. Attribution Error: This error involves attributing others’ behavior to internal factors (their character or personality) while attributing our own behavior to external factors (situational factors). For example, assuming a coworker’s lateness is due to laziness, but your own lateness is because of heavy traffic.
  18. Negativity Bias: This bias refers to the tendency to give more weight to negative information or experiences over positive ones. Remembering and dwelling on criticism received in a performance review while dismissing the positive feedback is an example of negativity bias.
  19. Gambler’s Fallacy: This fallacy occurs when people believe that the outcome of a random event is influenced by previous outcomes. For example, assuming that a roulette wheel is “due” to land on black because it has landed on red multiple times in a row.
  20. Endowment Effect: This effect describes the tendency to assign higher value to things we already own compared to identical things we don’t own. Refusing to sell an old book at a lower price than its original purchase price because of the sentimental value attached to it is an example of the endowment effect.

These heuristics and biases help us understand how our minds simplify complex situations, but they can also lead to errors in judgment. Recognising these tendencies can help us make more informed decisions and think more critically.

It all starts with self-awareness – what will you do, now you know about these little biases, tendencies and mental shortcuts?

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