Our Mental Shortcuts and Bias’ in Decision-Making

By Dr. Debra Rezendes, HMT Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy in Northern Virginia

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have found myself coveting more time to read and learn. I have gleaned much from these conversations and trainings and have found them helpful in considering the various ways in which I may openly support and invite my clients’ lived experiences of diverse aspects of themselves into the therapy room. In fact, being completely truthful, you can often find me reading several books at once. This month, I thought it might be helpful to give you a peak into what has been on my bedside table this year. Although it is hard to pick just one, I thought David Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, might be timely. 

Kahneman’s (2011) purpose for the book is to explore the ways in which mental heuristics (i.e., shortcuts) lead us to quick judgements and bias our decision-making processes. According to Kahneman (2011), our cognitive system is comprised of two distinct systems. In System 1, decisions are made automatically, and quick judgements are made based on familiar patterns. In System 2, the decision-making process takes longer, and a more methodical approach to decision making is used. The research throughout Kahneman’s (2011) book provides ample evidence that individuals do not use rational thinking during the decision-making process and rely more heavily on System 1. This is why therapy often seeks to help individuals understand the ways in which their blueprint of the world influences current behaviors. 

While System 1 may help us to more efficiently navigate our environments, it often leads to conclusions that are more stereotypic, leading us to incorrectly conclude information about the world, others, and (sometimes) ourselves. These errors are often at the heart of inflexible belief systems that do little to promote diverse, flexible thinking. In addition, System 1 also biases how we remember and make meaning from events in our lives. For example, individuals have been found to prefer simple stories of reality versus more complicated explanations of situations, people, and events (Kahneman, 2011). Complicated explanations often exhaust our cognitive resources—especially in times of high stress like the current pandemic. This finding seems to provide additional insight into why we may find ourselves relying more heavily on stereotypes to guide our understanding of human behaviors.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to Kahneman’s (2011) book is my desire to learn more about how to support the promotion of diverse thinking in my classrooms in empirically-supported ways. Kahneman’s (2011) discussion of the innate challenges that our cognitive system presents allow me to understand the enormous challenge of modifying intergenerational belief systems, especially as they relate to deeply emotional tensions around difficult (and for some, new) conversations. By understanding the cognitive roots of the resistance that we face, it provides us a way to identify the fallacies in relying on these mental heuristics to drive our decision-making processes. When we can objectify the challenge, we can become less emotionally attached and are more willing to modify our own behaviors. Admittedly, this is Kahneman’s (2011) aim in writing this book. In his opening, he discusses wanting these mental heuristics to be more well-known so that an individual can objectively identify them in themselves and others as this is the primary precursor in sustainable change (Kahneman, 2011). Overall, I think Kahneman’s book is a helpful stepping-stone to understanding the wealth of science that cognitive psychology has to offer us in helping us to understand ourselves and others. 

As I finished Kahneman’s book this year, though, I found myself not satisfied with one important piece that I believe he left out—the power of relationships. While I understand that this piece is beyond the scope of Kahneman’s discussion, we must not forget that any considerable growth and change is grounded in the safety and security of healthy relationships.   


Reference: Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Penguin. 


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