November 01, 2015

The Ineffectiveness of Efficiency: Interrupting Cognitive Biases for Critical Thought

By Arin N. Reeves

Our Efficient Brains

Ironically, the three-pound organ ensconced in our skull that is responsible for all of our conscious and unconscious thoughts is the organ we understand the least. The research on how our brains work —how we think—has been amassing at a tremendous rate over the last two decades, and we have learned and continue to learn that a lot of what we think we are thinking is actually not thinking. It is more like reacting or remembering, but it is not analytical or critical thought.

One of the primary reasons that we don’t always think when we think we are thinking is that our brains are extremely efficient organs that work very hard to get the most thinking done using the least amount of energy possible. This, of course, makes sense because of the sheer volume of information that our brains have to collect, sift through, process, analyze, and prepare for action on a second-by-second basis. From making sure our hearts know to keep pumping to translating the red signal as a sign for us to press our foot down on the brake to stop the car to making a mental addition to your to-do list, our brains are working so hard that they are constantly scanning for potential shortcuts to operate more efficiently. While moderating the heart is clearly unconscious thought, driving a car initially requires conscious thought until the brain slowly relegates more of the driving activities to the unconscious realm. Driving, eventually, becomes less of a “thinking” activity and morphs into a “remembering how we have done this before” activity.

This focus on efficiency drives our brains to create as many cognitive shortcuts as possible, and these shortcuts are what we refer to as biases (also known as implicit biases, unconscious biases, and latent biases). Most of these cognitive shortcuts, or biases, are helpful, productive biases that allow us to live our lives more fully (imagine if putting on pants or buttoning your shirt had to be a conscious activity every morning!), but many biases may speed up our brain activity at the cost of critical thought and analysis. When biases lull us into thinking that we are thinking critically when, in fact, we are taking shortcuts based on assumptions, we need to identify and interrupt these biases in order to actually do the critical thinking we intend to do.

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