Cognitive Psychology and Deciding to Solve Problems

By Peter J. Hills, Michael Pake

Part of Cognitive Psychology For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Humans are thinking animals and cognitive psychologists are aware that people make decisions all the time. These decisions can be trivial (what should I have as a snack?) or much more life-changing (should I marry my current boyfriend?). Humans don’t appear to be that rational and use a number of mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to help them make decisions (quite often badly):

  • Availability heuristic: People make decisions based on how easy they find thinking of examples or outcomes, which leads to poor decisions if only certain information is easily available.

  • Anchoring: People often make decisions based on the piece of information they’re presented with first.

  • Ignoring the base-rate: People tend to ignore base-rate statistical information (that is, information about the frequency of particular events occurring), because it complicates the decision-making process.

  • Familiarity heuristic: People’s decisions are biased due to past experience. These experiences influence how they make decisions, instead of focusing on the novelty of the current situation (see figure for an example where familiarity and experience can impact people’s ability to solve a problem).

  • Recognition heuristic: People make decisions based on their recognition memory. When they see something they recognise, they’re likely to believe that it’s better or more common than something they don’t recognise.

    A problem to solve that’s often affected by people’s familiarity with the objects. You&
    A problem to solve that’s often affected by people’s familiarity with the objects. You’re given a box of drawing pins (thumb tacks), a candle and a book of matches. Your task is to fix the candle to a wall. Tip: think beyond your assumptions about these items’ normal uses.