4 ways to know our evaluation systems to avoid mistakes

The purpose of this article is to arrive at a deeper understanding of judgments, intuitions and choices.

Systematic errors are called biases and are preconceptions that recur in predictable ways in certain circumstances. Understanding and knowing biases gives more reasoning tools and helps you avoid mistakes. All research has documented systematic errors in the thinking of normal and healthy people.

They were attributed to the structure of the cognitive mechanism, not to the fact that emotions corrupt thought. No denigration of intelligence or emotions, therefore, but a disenchanted discovery of mechanisms and thought patterns.

The mental system 1 and the mental system 2

We have two mental systems for assessing reality:

–  System 1:  operates quickly and automatically, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It is the set of impressions and sensations that spontaneously originate and are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of system 2. Here are some examples of the activities attributed to system 1: understanding which is the most distant or closest object, orienting oneself towards the source of a sudden sound, complete the phrase “bread and …”, answer “2 + 2”, detest the hostile tone of a voice, read words on large billboards, drive on a deserted road, understand simple sentences.

–  System 2 : directs attention to demanding mental activities that require focus, such as complex calculations. The operations of system 2 are very often associated with the subjective experience of action, choice and concentration.

Some examples are: focus on the circus clowns, focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room, rummage in memory to retrieve a particular memory, keep a pace faster than what comes naturally, check the adequacy of our behavior in a social situation, counting how many times the letter “A” appears on a page of text, calculating what is 27 × 72, comparing the value of two washing machines, checking the validity of a complex logical argument.

These demanding activities interfere with each other: one could never calculate what 17 × 25 does while turning left in heavy traffic. They depend on working memory, one of the executive functions of the brain, which organize and plan a task to be performed in a series of stages.

System 2 seems to be the main actor, but in reality the protagonist of the book (and most of our choices, intuitions, decisions) is system 1. System 2 is what we think we are, system 1 is what we are deep we are.

The automatic operations of system 1 generate surprisingly complex models of ideas, but only system 2, which is slower, is able to process thoughts in an ordered series of stages. This division of work between the two systems is very efficient and allows great energy savings.

The problem however is that system 1 is often subject to bias which tends to commit in specific situations. Furthermore, the problem is that it cannot be turned off. Optical illusions are an example of system error 1. The cognitive illusions that lead to biases are even more powerful than optical illusions, and are more difficult to recognize, at least when we make first-person mistakes.

It is easier to recognize someone else’s mistakes than one’s own. In summary: system 1 is automatic, system 2 is reflective. Spontaneously, each of us tends to adopt the least demanding way we find to achieve the same goal. Effort is a cost and our brain tends to limit it as much as possible. Laziness is deeply rooted in human nature.

In the elaboration of events and ideas, a coherent associative activation takes place. Every element is connected; it supports and strengthens others. The word evokes memories, which arouse emotions, which in turn provoke facial expressions and other reactions.

These create an associative memory. An example of this function, which can trigger a bias, is priming. Being exposed to a word, phrase or situation leads to immediate and easily measurable changes in the words or situations evoked accordingly.

Priming also changes our actions, even by evoking an un explicit situation. It is also used on an advertising level, to induce thoughts or actions automatically, without our realizing it.

In all this sea of ​​cognitive activities, what the brain is looking for is fluidity, flow. Persuasive messages try to trigger cognitive fluidity, which entails a feeling of familiarity, truth, positivity, lack of effort.

To be persuasive it has been shown that you need to use larger fonts, good contrast between characters and background, simple language, if possible rhymes, simple names, evocative and at the same time common words. If possible, it is good to repeat the keywords within the text.

Good mood, intuition, creativity, credulity and greater activity of system 1 go hand in hand. At the same time, vigilance is lowered with respect to logical errors. At the opposite pole we find that sadness, vigilance, suspicion, analytical method, strong commitment and activation of system 2 go together.

Cognitive fluency is both a cause and a consequence of the feeling of well-being. Some evidence shows that people are more susceptible to inconsistent persuasive messages such as commercials when they are relaxed and deconcentrated.

Another bias is the halo effect, which is the tendency to appreciate (or detest) everything about a person based on a few known elements. It is proven that anyone who is good-looking, or has a beautiful voice, is better judged in his way of expressing himself.

This is because system 1 tries to build a coherent story, wants to jump to conclusions as soon as possible. The important thing for system 1 is consistency, not completeness of information. This is also why we are always looking for news or data that confirm our initial idea, creating the famous confirmation bias. The more consistent the story, the more confident we are that we are right, even excessively.

Judgments are formed thanks to a heuristic process based on attempts that progressively bring the response closer. It is the method for finding adequate, albeit imperfect, answers to difficult questions. In many cases we replace the target question – the one on which we have to make a judgment – a heuristic question, which is the simplest, which is answered instead of the other.

For example, to the question “how popular will the president be in 6 months?” subconsciously we replace the question “how popular is the president today?” At this point the answer to the first question becomes simpler. We don’t even notice that we made the replacement while answering the first question, but this is the heuristic mechanism.

In this way, the brain saves energy and the expensive system 2 is not questioned much.

Biases and phenomena

There are several biases in the analysis of certain phenomena.


The tendency to see particular patterns in randomness, such as some anniversaries, some extraordinary performances, and so on. In fact, the case is in action.

The anchoring effect . When people have to assign a value to an unknown quantity they start from a certain available value. For example, if you think about buying a house, you will be influenced by the market value. The negotiations will start from there. only later can we move away from the anchor. Anchoring is due to priming and insufficient adjustment, which derives precisely from insecurity in moving away from the safe anchor.