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Short-cut decisions


Explanations > Decisions > Short-cut decisions

Reaction | Conditioning | Habit | Intuition | Heuristics | Scripts | So what?


As we are making a constant stream of decisions as we interact with the outer world, we do not have time to think long and hard about every decision. We thus need to make quick decisions about many of our actions, especially those we make when external events such as when we are driving down the road, that do not allow us to ponder for long on the best course of action.

When people make these quick decisions, it may lead to short-term action but it seldom results in permanent changes in belief or other deep systems.


There are some events to which we react without even resorting to heuristics, such as when a branch falls from a tree above us, we quickly jump out of the way. When milliseconds count, there are specialized parts of the primitive brain that help us with these actions, literally by-passing the cortical decision centers.


Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are programmed by the events around us, but unlike the dogs, we have many and complex programs. A person who is attacked once in a dark alley may have an aversion to them for the rest of their lives. Many of us have phobias of various kinds, ranging from a natural caution about high places to dark fears that constrain us at every turn.

We are also programmed by our parents, teachers and peers to act in ‘civilised’ ways that help people to live together in reasonable harmony. If someone offers you their hand, you shake it without much consideration of the alternatives.


Do you usually buy one brand of coffee? The chances are that you do, and that the choice is more to do with simplifying your trip to the supermarket than whether it is the best taste or value.

Habits can have different strengths, ranging from simply repeating what worked last time to full physical addictions, where not following the ‘right’ decision results in significant discomfort (such as smoking cigarettes).


Many decisions appear as if by magic, without us having to think about what to do or say. Such choices are often called 'intuition'. They may be explained by considering the efficiency of the subconscious mind at searching through our experiences and finding a good match to what we are facing. Like a great librarian, it finds us the answer to our question without even having to be asked.


A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a simple formula that says, ‘when this happens, do this.’ Heuristics are typically based on ‘what worked before will work again’ and we accumulate a vast array of heuristics to make our lives easier. For example a common parental heuristic is, ‘If the phone rings, it is probably for my teenage daughter, so there is no point in my answering it’ (the alternative is a race to see who gets to the phone first).

Heuristics are helpful, but they can also be too easy and consequently make us lazy. They can also misdirect us when we use them in inappropriate situations.

They are often invoked in social situations by short-cut phrases like 'it stands to reason, doesn't it' or 'it's obvious, really'.


Scripts are prepared sets of things to say and do that we keep for various  situations. For example, when we meet another person and they say 'Hello' and hold out their hand, we grasp their hand, shake it and say something like 'Fine, thanks, and how are you today?'

We scripts to handle many situations, from the polite greetings to angry retorts. These can be very short or can even be very protracted. They also come in collections, for example the scripts used by a sales person when handling objections to a purchase.

So What

So when you want them to make quick decisions, trigger one of these responses, but do not expect it to result in longer-term internal change.

If you want to create a deeper change that required conscious thought, then prevent these short-cut decisions by questioning them or bringing the decision subject into the open to make it a conscious decision. 

See also

Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, Elaboration Likelihood Model, Schema

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