Why the Human Race is Prone to Making Bad Decisions

Updated: Oct 3

Jacob Derossett

We're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach and author. Sara has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades training and certifying others to teach mindfulness Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. On today's episode, we discuss how our brains interfere with our ability to make rational decisions. And we also talk about how our brains take mental shortcuts that can actually warp our reality. I’m Jacob Derossett, we're here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm great, Jacob, thank you. People approach decision-making in different ways. Some people use analysis, they might use a pros and cons list. Others rely more on intuition or consider their emotions. Some people might ask for guidance; some like to make decisions independently on their own without guidance. Some people avoid decision-making--they might procrastinate making the decision, or they might pass it off to somebody else.


The human brain depends on cognitive bias but is cognitive bias the best way to make a decision. Mindfulness


And there is actually research that shows that people who avoid decision-making are less mindful. And some people might make decisions quickly to avoid the stress of the decision-making process. When I read this, this was new to me. I knew that some of us make decisions quickly. But it never occurred to me that maybe sometimes people are doing that to avoid the whole decision-making process in general. There's a name for this. It's called “hyper-vigilance decision making”. Also the research shows people who do this are associated with low mindfulness.


People have been researching why people make bad decisions for decades. Some experts say bad decisions happen because people take mental shortcuts. And there's a name for this. It's called heuristics. Heuristics are these mental shortcuts that we make, so we can make decisions quickly, and with limited effort. And these mental shortcuts cause irrational thinking. So that's the whole premise of this school of thought is that the reason people go into irrational thinking, is because of these mental shortcuts.


Jacob Derossett

Do they explain why? What's the causation?


Sarah Vallely

They're called “cognitive biases”, and there are 24 of them. So there's a different type of reason for each one--most of them have to do with minimizing effort. We receive roughly 11 million bits of information per second. But we can only process about 40 bits of information per second. So these heuristics are our brains attempt to simplify the information processing, because there's so much. I think you and I just listened to a podcast recently where they had a guest on Tim Ferriss show, and the guest was explaining that there is all of this stuff going on in our reality that we can't see, understand or process because it's just beyond our brains capability. I think he was saying, when you take psychedelics it actually stops that.


Jacob Derossett

I heard Michael Pollan recently. In his book, “How to Change your Mind”, he talked to all the psychonauts from the 60s and 70s. And he asked them all “What was your favorite substance?”, and all of them said, mescaline. So peyote, from San Pedro plant--it is a opening up all of your sensory inputs. You can sit in astonishment for 12 hours at the back of your hand, because you're open and taking in every part of that. Basically, our walking around experience is a subdued version of that. The research on psychedelics is just absolutely incredible. Nowadays, it's very interesting. I'm very, very interested in that stuff. But yeah, that's a big part of it is opening up all of the things that you have to shut out to help you to function because it's not functional to sit and stare at the back of your hand for 12 hours. It's fun, but not functional.


Sarah Vallely

When I was listening to that episode, I was sitting in my garage working on a painting project. And I stopped and I looked out my garage at all the trees and I just said, wow, there's probably all this stuff going on that I'm not processing.


Researchers call this process “cognitive biases”, which are subconscious errors in thinking that affect how rational and accurate our decisions are. There are 24 of these cognitive biases that they've come up with. Cognitive biases warp our perception of reality. I'm not going to go through all 24. But I'll go over a few. If you think about it, it's not really our fault, we have to take these mental shortcuts, because there isn't enough time, or there isn't enough information.


Here's an example of cognitive bias. This one is called “hindsight bias”. This is when you look back on an event after it happened. And you think that you knew during the whole event, what the outcome was going to be. A typical example is someone who's watching a sports game, and then the sports game ends and their team loses. And they're like, “Oh, yeah, I knew my team was going to lose.” But the reality is, they did not know when they are watching, that their team was going to lose. This is something that I do every single presidential election, after the results come in, I'm like, “Oh, yeah, I knew that was going to be the outcome.”


Jacob Derossett

I'm permeated right now, with this podcast, I was listening to yesterday. When the housing market crashed in 2008, everybody's like, “Okay, we need to watch out for that.” And then when COVID happened, (It is a financial podcast), they're like, “Okay, we need to watch out for that.” We think that we are preparing for the unknown. But really, we're preparing for things that have happened. We don't keep into consideration enough is surprised. Events will happen that we actually have no idea are going to take place.


Sarah Vallely

That's the whole point that the experts are making is that the problem with this cognitive process, that most of us do, is that it leads us to incorrectly believe we can predict the outcomes when we can't. The experts say the reason we do this is because it feels better to live in the illusion that the world is predictable.


Jacob Derossett

It’s paralyzing to just sit and consider every potential thing that could go wrong. That's not functional.


Sarah Vallely

People who are more mindful take less of these mental shortcuts that we're talking about. This is proven by science so it must be true. Therefore, people who are more mindful, make better and more rational decisions. Being rational has so much to do with the process that we use--the process being we avoided these mental shortcuts that led us into illusion-type thinking.


Jacob Derossett

Can you give an example of a rational versus irrational decision?


Sarah Vallely

There is a cognitive bias that's called “confirmation bias”. And that's when we read things or hear things and people will often interpret what they're saying, as supporting what we already believe. When in fact, there might be parts of what they're saying that don't exactly align with what we believe, but we're not processing that. If I'm putting together a podcast episode, if I'm putting together a class, if I'm working on a book that I'm writing, and I'm reading research, I'm processing the information in a way that aligns with what I already believe. I have caught myself doing this. I'll say, “Oh, yeah, that's what I was thinking.” And then maybe a few days later, I end up reading the study again, for some reason. And I'll realize I actually didn't interpret that part correctly. And I will learn what I believed wasn't completely true.


I was reading through these different biases. I'll get into a few more. And I was trying to come up with personal examples that I do. And sometimes it was really hard. And I was thinking, if I can't come up with an example, I probably do this a lot and just have no idea. It kind of freaked me out. Let me tell you about this study. It's called “Cognitive Biases and Mindfulness”. And it was published in 2021. And the researchers did this study in London. Let me back up a little bit and talk about the structure of mindfulness studies. Mindfulness studies, either test people's mindfulness skills--everybody who's a subject takes a test and they're assessed on how mindful of a person they are. And then they're given another test, maybe “how good of a person you are” test, not really but that's basically what these tests are and then they do the correlations. “It looks like the people who scored high on ‘how good of a person you are’ test also scored high, how mindful you are. So we conclude that if you're a good person, you're more mindful. If you're more mindful, you're a good person. That's just one type of mindfulness research structure.


The other option, they take subjects and they teach them mindfulness. And then they take another control group that they don't teach mindfulness. And then afterwards, they give them some kind of test. Also, a variation of that is they will take a group of people, they will give them a test in the beginning, then they'll teach them mindfulness. And they'll give them a similar test at the end to just see how their answers shifted based on a mindfulness training. A good example of that is from our racism episode, they tested their making microaggressions before they taught them mindfulness--actually, they didn't even teach them mindfulness. All they did was have them listen to a 10 minute guided mindfulness meditation, where they just noticed their body in a non-judgmental way. Then they gave them another test on microaggressions. And they were 80%, less likely to make microaggressions, which was just completely mind-blowing, it takes so little.


“Cognitive Biases and Mindfulness” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications; 2021.


This study doesn't do either of those things. I've been reading mindfulness research for 15 years, I've never seen this before. What they did in this study, is they sat people down, and they had them look at photos; they had two groups. And this is the other funny thing. The one group they called the “mindless group” and the other group they called the “mindful group”. They gave the mindless group photos and asked them a simple question about each photo. They gave the mindful group the same photos, but they asked them more detailed questions about these photos, which forced them to spend more time looking at the photos, looking for more possibilities.


That's it. And then they gave both groups tests on cognitive bias--how much are you making decisions based on your cognitive biases? If you look at these results, it takes so little, I mean, that's all they did was look at these photos and find more stuff in the photos. It makes me think that all we need to do is take five minutes out of our day andlook around and find five things in your environment that we never noticed before. Just do that once a day, and you're going to be better at decision making.


Jacob Derossett

I do have a question, though, about all this, because I've been thinking about this a lot lately. How do you get through to people that this is important that you should really try? How do you approach this because I very much struggle with this. I would say that's probably my absolute thing that I'm worse at as a trainer is getting people to make a habit change outside of the time that we work together. It seems like there's this real uphill battle when it comes to helping people with that.


Sarah Vallely

As you know, I've been doing this for 21 years. I think you get to the point where you let that go. Be the best trainer, be the best teacher, the best coach you can be. And let go of outcome of what your clients are going to do. But sometimes I will step in. I had a client recently that was avoidant on certain things. And I finally told her, I said, “I'm concerned.” And since I don't normally do that, that really had an effect on her. The next session, she said, “You really woke me up when you said that. You made me realize that I really need to make a shift around this.” So being honest--that came from the heart. I truly was concerned. So being in alignment with your heart when you're offering the suggestions can also be helpful. And also stating data, which I'm sure you do, you do that all the time.


I was telling you about this study, “Cognitive Biases and Mindfulness”. All the mindfulness group did was look at these photos more deeply and ask more difficult questions. Here's the results of the study. Those that were in the mindful group, performed 40% better on “confirmation bias” questions than the mindless group. As a reminder, confirmation bias is when you interpret new information, as in alignment with your own beliefs. The reasoning that experts give for why we do this is that it is easy to process information that aligns with your own beliefs--it takes less effort. We make these mental shortcuts because it takes less effort.


“Availability Bias” is another cognitive bias. Those in the mindful group performed 30% better than those in the mindless group. Availability bias is believing that because you're thinking about an event frequently, it's common. Or if you see something on the news a lot than you think it's common. For you Jacob, maybe it's thinking about plane crashes, because you think about plane crashes, or there's a part of you that thinks it's common, but it's really not.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, because in the movies, a lot of times people, they're in plane crashes. So yeah.


Sarah Vallely

I've got another example of the availability bias. Jacob, are there more words in the English language that begin with the letter K, or more words that have K as the third letter in the word?


Jacob Derossett

I would imagine it would be begin with K. But it kind of feels misleading, because when people bring these things up, it's always the opposite of what you think. Right?


Sarah Vallely

The majority of people will answer that there are more words in the English language that begin with the letter K. Actually, in reality, there are way more words that have K as the third letter. The reason we answer “begin with the letter K” is because that's what we access in our memory quicker. We generally access words by the word that they begin with a remember words by the letter that they begin with.


Jacob Derossett

yeah, I was like “kitchen, ketchup.” And then I was like, “Third letter? I can't think of any.”


Sarah Vallely

That is how you experience it in your cognition--that's in your memory. There's a part of you that believes that's more common, but when in reality, it's not.


Jacob Derossett

That’s just like when you buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and you drive around, and then all of a sudden, everybody has a Jeep Grand Cherokee?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, the reason the experts believe that we do this, is because it takes less effort to make a decision based on what's in front of us--our own thoughts, what we've seen on TV or in the movies. To make a better decisions we need to look deeper into all the possibilities. Again, it just takes less effort.


Jacob Derossett

It's interesting that it all comes back to effort. My wife and I talk about decision fatigue all the time. What are we going to do for dinner? What do we need? We have so many things to consider. It's exhausting. Later in the day it's way more difficult than in the beginning of the day, because your decision battery is really high in the morning. And then as you go, you make decisions, that energy gets lower.


Sarah Vallely

In general, we believe we have an unlimited amount of energy to put toward our thinking, our mental processes. And the reality is, we have a finite amount of energy to put towards that.


Another bias is called an “attentional bias”. And those in the mindful group scored 40% better on this type of bias than those in the mindless group. And what this bias is, is you don't notice something because you're focused on something else. This just seems like human nature we all do this. The reason that we do this is because we naturally focus on the very familiar because it takes less effort to process. A classic example of this is that video, I'm sure a lot of us have seen, of those people passing the basketball. And you're asked at the beginning of the video to count how many times they pass the basketball. And what happens is, during that video, a guy dressed up as a gorilla jumps in with the group of people passing the basketball, passes the ball a couple of times, and then jumps back out.


The majority of people who watch that video, don't even notice that a gorilla jumped in because they're so focused on counting the number of passes. An example of this would be when we're making a decision and we're not seeing this other aspect of the situation. We're blind to it. We all know mindfulness helps us see more of the the reality of what's going on.


One more cognitive bias is “loss aversion”. And those that were in the mindful group scored 30% better on the questions that related to loss aversion. Loss aversion is when we would rather avoid losing something rather than gaining something that's equivalent in value.


Jacob Derossett

We're biased towards negative. I think most people are even if they don't think that they are. Because it's a survival instinct, right? Being optimistic doesn't necessarily keep you alive, as well as vigilance. So that makes good sense.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, we're all operating from some negative bias and mindfulness can help us be aware of that for sure. A typical example of loss aversion is when you're online, and they give you a free trial, and you sign up for the free trial, and then you end up paying for the product. There's a psychology behind it. We're more likely to pay and keep that product because we don't want to lose our access to it even if we don't use it that much.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, Disney plus is getting like $100 a year from me and I literally never watched anything on it. But just in case, I've got access to all the Marvel movies.


Sarah Vallely

I just finally got rid of Peacock. Grammarly? I don't know if I really use Grammarly. I need to get rid of that.


How does mindfulness help us reduce cognitive bias so we can make better more rational decisions?


Jacob Derossett

For me, it’s the awareness, I'm now aware, I'm able to see my decisions, I'm able to watch my thought process. I've gotten way more aware of those really quick little thoughts that go through, that I normally would have not been the least bit aware of. I'm able to see that whole process happen, I'm able to be the witness of that process go through. (A) I'm more aware of being aware of that, and (B), I'm going to be able to make an actionable change. Our mind is like a house that we're standing outside of looking at. And then I think that the more mindful you become, the more exploration you do of your mind. We could say, it's like you're walking around in the rooms. You can go in a room and sit down, open a door. But I think a lot of people, including myself, are in a different zip code than their minds.


Sarah Vallely

We can pull up some websites on cognitive biases and learn all 24. And consider if we're playing out these certain biases. This is an approach I use in coaching a lot. I'll give a lot of examples. “You might be doing this, you might be doing this with your cognition, you might be doing this.” But the other approach is to simply practice mindfulness, just like they did in this study, which it was borderline. They just looked at photos and found things in the photos. Maybe just buy a “Where's Waldo?” book. Do that every night.


But seriously, start practicing mindfulness more. And the idea is that you'll naturally not depend on your cognitive biases, as much as truly shown by the results of the research. And the reason is, because mindfulness practice is about seeing reality, as it is--just this is. Mindfulness helps stop our own thinking and our cognitive process get in the way of seeing reality. That's the whole point of mindfulness. We've got all this stuff going on in our heads that is obscuring our ability to see reality. But mindfulness minimizes that. It helps us not buy into other people's illusions. And it helps us in general, be able to notice more stimuli because we're not eluded or distracted by our own thinking. And so that can be really helpful for decision making and rational thinking--to be able to see the big picture (or just look at some pictures.) Laughing.


Jacob Derossett

This podcast is just about “do mindfulness.” Racism: do mindfulness, you're broke: do mindfulness.


Sarah Vallely

You're sad: do mindfulness! Whatever it is!



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