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Are You Thinking Too Fast?

I’ve been doing some reading lately about this idea of fast versus slow thinking. Basically, the idea is that most of the time, we make decisions very quickly, using shortcuts to assume details, and then moving on. That’s actually a good thing, because if we really stopped and considered all of the possible details of every single decision we make during the day, we’d all lose our minds, and probably never get anything done. Think, for example, of trying to figure out the ideal way to go from your bedroom to the kitchen for your morning coffee. Which cup would be best? Should you drink it first, and then get ready, or while you get ready? Where should you set the cup while you get ready? What exact temperature should it be to truly be most enjoyable, and on and on and on?

You can see why we take shortcuts on a regular basis to make decisions.

But, this can also be a problem, when we are basing these quick decisions on incorrect information. This article talks about how this hurts us at work, when things are stressful:

“Some of the more fundamental assumptions you make on a daily basis about the world you experience and the people in it, including yourself, can’t always be trusted,” Penney says. In numerous lab experiments, it’s been shown, as she puts it, “sometimes we see things that aren’t there, and sometimes we fail to see things that are in plain sight … This happens because we are hardwired to make fast decisions not accurate ones.”

In her work studying stress, Lisa Penney finds that we struggle with that fast thinking when we get into unfamiliar situations. We want to rely on our old information, even though it doesn’t necessarily apply in this new situation.

“The fact that our thoughts and decisions become automatic is really helpful and it works great in situations that closely match our past experiences,” says Penney. “But it gets us in trouble when we have new experiences and when we’re under stress.”

The rest of that article then takes a look at how to make better decisions at work, and how to not react too quickly when you’re stressed, which is all good advice, but not why I’m writing about this here. I writing about this here, as you may have guessed, because child abuse teaches us things that are not accurate about our adult lives. As a survivor, one of the things I needed to learn was to get out of the habit of thinking quickly about situations.

Being abused as a child often teaches us that we deserved it, to be ashamed of ourselves and our actions, to not trust anyone, that our bodies are something to be ashamed of, and many other tidbits of false information. That past experience gets hard-wired into our fast decision making, in places that can be rather counter productive in our adult lives. After all, if our first reaction to anything new is to assume it will hurt us, it’ll be very hard to make any progress in our lives.

So maybe some of this advice about slowing down, and considering why you are making an assumption might be helpful in moving us forward:

“Ask yourself: ‘What’s the story I’m telling myself? Is it true?’” says Penney. She cautions, “Remember, thoughts that are familiar will feel true, so don’t stop there. Ask yourself: ‘What evidence do I have? Do I have other stories that might also make sense?’”

When you stop and ask yourself that, you may find that actually, the story you’re telling yourself immediately is correct, or at least the best explanation. Other times, it won’t be. But you will, at least, be making a conscious decision, not relying on your fight/flight response. That’s a step in the right direction, toward health.

So, slow down. Breathe. Then decide.

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