Every day, people are faced with innumerable choices, and methodically weighing the pros and cons of each one is not only unnecessary, it is also mentally draining. In order to ease this cognitive burden, people have evolved two modes of thinking—intuitive thinking and rational thinking—to help us make decisions more efficiently. Intuitive thinking—also known as System 1 thinking—is fast, effortless, automatic, and takes place in our unconscious, while rational thinking—also known as System 2 thinking—is slow, effortful, logical, and takes place consciously. Intuitive thinking actually helps us reach successful conclusions more quickly and economically than rational thinking.
Intuitive thinking relies heavily on existing mental shortcuts—known as heuristics—and on cognitive biases. Heuristics are simple rules of thumb that our brains have evolved to help us reach satisfactory—though not always optimal—decisions swiftly and efficiently. Sometimes, however, heuristics fail and lead to cognitive biases, which are systematic errors in the way we think. For instance, people:
- Are more affected by losses than by gains. One of the most important underlying principles of human decision-making is called Prospect Theory, which holds that humans do not make decisions based on a rational evaluation of the final outcome, but rather on an unconscious evaluation of the potential gains and losses of each choice.
- Prefer simplicity over complexity. Biases and heuristics are all about lightening the cognitive load, so it is no surprise that people tend to choose options that are easier to mentally process, even when a more complicated option is actually better.
- Are affected by current emotional and visceral states. Like cognitive processes, visceral states and emotions play an essential role in helping people make successful choices, but sometimes they can lead to biases. For example, people are more impulsive when they are hungry, thirsty, sexually aroused, or in other heightened states of emotion.
- Are heavily influenced by those around them. People are naturally social creatures who automatically imitate the actions and mimic the emotions of those around them.
- Make decisions based on context. Decisions are not made in a vacuum; rather, they are extremely dependent on context. Context can include the physical environment in which a person makes a decision, the unconscious priming effects a person encounters, how a decision is framed, and what other choices are available for comparison.
- Misjudge their past and future experiences. Our memory is not like a videotape; it does not record every moment of an experience, placing equal emphasis on each second. Instead, it is like a camera, taking snapshots at certain crucial moments and then retroactively judging the experience based on those snapshots.
For more information on how to incorporate these biases into your efforts, see the report Behavioral Guide to Customer Experience Design.
The bottom line: Embrace human biases, don’t ignore them.