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Spotlight on.......Psychology

About the author: Miss Buckley is our Acting Head of Psychology. She teaches A-level Psychology and leads on the academic enrichment programme ‘Psychology in Action’, which is a student research project.....

As a Psychology and Business teacher, Miss Buckley is particularly interested in the field of behavioural economics which looks at the psychology of human decision making. Whilst this field is ‘above and beyond’ the A-level specification, students have been carrying out their own research on this topic during academic enrichment on Friday afternoons. She is keen for students to learn about psychology which is directly relevant to their everyday lives.

How much are we in control of our own decision-making?

We would all like to think that we are independent decision makers, not influenced or susceptible to the things around us. We make thousands of decisions a day, including more complex ones like how much effort to put into a task or more simple ones like what to have for dinner. However, despite some sources claiming we make up to 35,000 decisions a day we might not be as independent as we think we are in making our choices.

A fast-growing body of research known as Behavioural Economics is starting to give us insight into how we think and make decisions and it is much more complex than we might realise. Most of the decisions that we make are controlled by mental shortcuts known as cognitive biases.

In Kahneman’s international bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, he states we have two systems for thinking. One quick system (thinking fast), which makes rapid, intuitive decisions and another more thoughtful system (thinking slow) which takes its time and weighs up decisions rationally. Now, by default, humans are said to be “cognitive misers” and avoid using mental effort if we can help it. We therefore quite often rely on our faulty ‘system 1’ thinking, which is more prone to cognitive biases. Interestingly, if you ever wonder why it is harder to turn down a chocolate biscuit when you are tired, it is because our self-control weakens when we are tired, hungry, or mentally exhausted and let 'system 1' takeover.

Listed below are just 7 of Kahneman and Tversky’s 48 cognitive biases.

1. Confirmation bias. This is the tendency to search for and find evidence which is consistent with our beliefs, whilst overlooking counter examples. An interesting experiment on this can be seen in this short video clip.

2. Anchoring bias. This is the subconscious phenomenon of making incorrect estimates due to previously heard quantities. In an experiment where participants were asked to guess the product of the sum 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8 they gave a much lower estimate (of 512) than the group who had the same sum in descending order (8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1). Their median estimate was 2,250. The actual answer being 40,320.

3. Cognitive priming. If we’ve been talking about food we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with a U but if we’ve been talking about cleanliness we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with an A.

4: Overlooking luck.  Most people love to attach causal interpretations to the fluctuations of random processes. If we took out the ‘human-ness’ of an event and simplified it to a statistical calculation we would see that things always regress to the mean. However, when a sports player is doing well we attribute that he/she is on a “winning streak”, but the likelihood is that he/she will very soon regress to the mean.

5: Intuitive predictions.  We often say we “feel something is right”, which allows us to feed our overconfidence in something. Intuition however is often wrong, even when used by experts in their field.

6. The peak end rule. How an experience ends, seems to hold greater weight in our memory than how an experience was lived. If you had a really nice restaurant meal, but you had to wait too long for your bill, you are much more likely to remember how it was at the end rather than the total sum of the experience.

7. Miswanting. We exaggerate the effect of a significant purchase or changed circumstances on our future well-being. Things that are initially exciting eventually lose their appeal. Even when we book that dream holiday or purchase a new car, eventually they lose their appeal.

The really interesting part is that you would think we would learn from our mistakes – but we don’t! Looking at this well-known visual illusion known as the ‘Shepherd's Table’, which table is longer, the one on the left or right?

If you are like most people, you will have picked the table on the left. If you are new to this illusion the answer may be surprising that they are both the same in length (feel free to check with a ruler!). Even though your brain now knows this if you look at them again, you will still make the same ‘mistake’!

You may be wondering why we have these mental shortcuts or faulty thinking systems? The answer is they have helped us adapt and survive over time. It would simply not be efficient for us to process the amount of information there is around us at any one given time, so our brains have become ‘efficient’ by using as little information as possible to make a quick decision.

Now you are aware of these biases, try and spot them in your everyday life. You may still be susceptible to them, but having mindful awareness of our thoughts helps us to attempt to overcome them.


Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow /New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Ariely, D. (2009) Are we in control of our own decisions?, retrieved from TED