In life, sometimes we make good decisions and other times we make mistakes. There are multiple reasons that explain why we make bad decisions, from being too emotionally involved to not having all the relevant information. However, we cannot always blame emotions or lack of information. Although it is difficult for us to admit it, many times we make bad decisions, even if we know what is best, due to simple cognitive laziness.
For example, it is likely that to get from home to work every day you follow the same route, which is usually the shortest or with the least traffic. However, imagine that yesterday there was an incident on the street that you usually take, so that you used another route and avoided the chaos in traffic. The next day, would you go back to your usual route or would you choose the new route that worked so well for you yesterday?
Most of the people choose the new route, even though they are aware that the old route is the best one and only had a one-time problem.
This little “experiment” that has been recreated in laboratory shows that decision-making is a complex process that does not always lead us in logical directions. Many times we prefer to choose based on our hunches and the things that worked well last time, rather than opting for effective solutions that we have tested over time.
When knowing what works is not enough for us
Researchers from Ohio State University found that we do not usually make the right decision, even if we know it, because we prefer to choose the path that our intuition marks us or to bet on the things that worked last time. We simply ignore the evidence that tells us what has worked best over time.
When we must make a decision – not only the most important but also other less momentous – it is as if we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, we experience a conflict in which we are torn between doing what we know works statistically and what worked lately.
In the experiment in question, the participants were involved in a simple computer game in which they had to realize the existence of patterns and take advantage of them to earn more money. The researchers tracked the movements of the computer mouse to see if people were able to detect the patterns.
The participants repeated the game dozens of times and understood the patterns. However, the researchers added a trick: They designed the game in such a way that the pattern that led to the highest reward did not work 10-40% of the time.
At this point the question was: after one of the tests in which the pattern that led to the highest reward did not work, what would the participants do? Would they follow the pattern or would they choose another option?
The results showed that participants followed the plan that gave them the most chance of success – the one that followed the pattern that worked at least 6 out of 10 times – only about 20% of the time.
In fact, people didn’t quite follow the pattern even when it was consistent. In those cases, they only chose it 40% of the time. At this point, the researchers wondered why we don’t choose the best strategy more often and make bad decisions that penalize us.
Victims of cognitive laziness
When we must make a decision in a complex environment, we can choose two different strategies: implement a fast and intuitive system that is based on the reinforcement of rewarded actions or apply an analytical system that takes into account both our experience and the characteristics of the environment.
The analytical thinking system often leads us to make better decisions because it combines both our past experiences and new demands, taking into account the probabilities and what has worked best over time. However, this system also requires a lot of energy in terms of time and cognitive resources. For this reason, we prefer to choose the quickest and easiest way, even if it does not lead us to make the best decision.
In addition, the rewards of following the best strategy are not always obvious, which can discourage us from using so much mental energy. In fact, cognitive laziness increases when we find it difficult to judge whether we have made a good or bad decision based only on the result. In life, we can make a good decision and simply have bad luck and achieve a bad result. Or we can make a bad decision, be lucky and get a good result.
In these types of situations, we are more likely to stop being “disciplined” and become cognitively lazy, opting for the decision that gave us the most recent reward, even if it is not the best.
The good news is that we usually know what works better, we just have to stop and reflect a bit to apply that knowledge and make the best decision. It is enough to apply more analytical thinking and ask if the strategies that have worked in the past can be applied to the new situation.
Konovalov, A. & Ian Krajbich, I. (2020) Mouse tracking reveals structure knowledge in the absence of model-based choice. Nature Communications; 11(1): 1893.