What Happens Here Sure Does Not Stay Here

I am talking about our thoughts.  This is what my entire blog is dedicated to. Our thoughts rule our lives from relationships to work. As knowledge workers we rely more on our critical thinking skills than anything else. Critical thinking is the only thing keeping us from becoming commoditized.

The problem with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than their minds.

- Walter Duranty

In this post I describe thinking styles that can trip us without even our awareness. It is mental short cuts. Now short cuts are a great thing for certain moments and under certain circumstances . Short cuts are what enables us to move seamlessly from driving one car to another, to getting burnt once and becoming twice shy, from deciding whether to react with joy or gloom at a salary hike, etc. But an unwitting reliance means we end up treating every problem as a nail to be solved using a hammer.

An unwitting reliance on shortcuts clouds our perception and impairs our problem solving capacities. Therefore knowing what these shortcuts are and how we use them will provide us awareness when we use them.

Psychologists refer to three short cuts: Availability, Representative and Anchoring.

In ‘Availability’ we rely on our most vivid memories to make a decision or solve a problem.  After the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami, India and other affected countries promptly invested in early warning systems. While the intention was a noble one, to prevent similar tragedies, the motivation was borne out of the vivid memories of the horror.

The ‘Availability’ trap leads us to believe the odds of recurrence of a recent event are high. This is a trap.

Another typical example of the ‘Availability’ short cut is the annual performance review. Events that occur close to the time of performance review far outweigh more distant events in terms of impact on the review even if they are actually less significant.

We use the ‘Representative’ short cut to classify things. If we see a few characteristics of a particular entity in another then we classify both as similar.  If we know a lot of smart people that talk briskly and then bump into a person that talks briskly we may judge this person to be smart as well.

I had a personal experience of this mental shortcut recently. On my daily commute I encountered the same passengers, one of whom was a woman. I knew nothing about her other than that she was a fellow passenger. One day I saw her drinking from a mug that had the label ‘I love you Mom’. Immediately warm feelings flooded me as I visualized her as a mother, a mother as loving to her kids as mine is to me.

Watch out for this shortcut. Isn’t this the reason why we have ads featuring lonely moms pining for the day their sons call them or actors showing up as nattily dressed doctors selling you a medicines.

The third mental shortcut is anchoring. An anchor is our internal thermostat of what is great, good, reasonable etc.  I fell victim to this on one of my job changes where I anchored the entire job offer on salary which happened to be much better than my previous one.

I did not last for more than a year in the new job. I moved elsewhere.

A better and more appropriate example would be in salary negotiations. If an employee gets a 10,000 dollar raise where normally it would only be a 1000 he would have every reason to be joyous because his anchor was the 1000 dollar raises in the past. But lets say he finds out that the big raise now puts him at par with others of similar skills he would not be so happy. His anchor had now changed.


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