Cognitive Shortcuts

Cognitive Shortcuts. Psychology Fanatic article header image

He’s an idiot; so, I will treat him as one. She is lovely, I will treat her with admiring attention. When we label, we treat the labeled person in that context. Our actions confirm the judgment by supporting the biased cognitive shortcut of labeling others. We also may correctly label, helping with decisions of safety and love. Our behavior and their subsequent reactions from praising to condescending tones create the dynamics of a relationship that confirms our confining assessments—the destructive dismantling or building of each other’s character.

What is A Cognitive Shortcut?

To save computing space in the brain, we rely on heuristic thinking. Our brains create patterns for judging and evaluating new data. These patterns are heuristics. They create a cognitive shortcut. Once in place, we use them automatically —and mindlessly. They are cognitive shortcuts that replace more complex evaluations. A common mental heuristic is to categorize things. In psychology, we call this cognitive shortcut categorical thinking. Labels are a feature of categorial thinking, creating a shortcut by slapping a simple label on a person or event and then treating the person or event to this inflexible label.

Key Definition

Cognitive shortcuts are patterns we use for judging and evaluating new data. These patterns replace more complex evaluations.

Lack of Objectivity

We seldom objectively observe—unknown biases invade and poison. With premature and inaccurate labels, we become part of a dysfunctional cycle. Our judgments self-confirm whether conducting a scientific experiment at the lab or evaluating the meaning of a conversation at home. We misjudge; the more categorical the thinking (good or bad), the greater the bias. While this speeds thinking, it narrows perceptions. People come in a million shades of grey, forcing them into tiny defined boxes is an injustice to complexity.

“We misjudge; the more categorical the thinking (good or bad), the greater the bias. While this speeds thinking, it narrows perceptions.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

We must step back and open our minds to soften critical labels, looking for characteristics that don’t neatly fit the attached label. Our efforts to enlarge thinking will and challenge judgments will uncover previously hidden biases. We will discover error in our thoughts—deeply discomforting for some.

​The work, although discomforting, is rewarding. Categorical thinking destroys relationships; by simplifying the complex mixture of good and bad, we vex communications with weighty and unjust conclusions. The partner we once saw as wonderful, at a flip of a switch, we label as awful when a few aspects of their character defy our definition of wonderful. Their simple displays of humanity spark extreme emotions, confirming felt injustices.

Cognitive Shortcuts and Self Labels

Through the smoke and mirrors of the mind, we become innocent victims of their chicanery. After labeled, the partner can do no right, and we treat them differently because we see them differently. Naturally, they begin to act differently because we treat them differently. A chain reaction has been set in motion that is difficult to stop. The label becomes the reality. The relationship changes dramatically, exposing the worst.

We stop this terrifying change by addressing the label, critically examining our judgments and accepting difference. Our rigid dogma splitting right and wrong blinds compassionate explorations into differences in behaviors and priorities. Seeing the world in the wonderful and fearful shades of grey, opens the exciting realities of complexity, weakening security but strengthen our navigation skills to manage the foggy waters of the unknown.

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