Cognitive Shortcuts



  • Three factors that may affect how you make decisions (0:36)

  • Two more factors that can affect your decision-making (1:12)

  • Case study: Four reasons we take mental shortcuts (2:35)

  • The risks and reward of taking mental shortcuts (3:50)

  • Why we employ mental shortcuts (aka heuristics) (5:35)

  • Meet the Representative shortcut (6:33)

  • Meet the Familiarity shortcut (7:45)

  • Case study: Three troubling questions the Familiarity shortcut leaves behind (10:22)

  • A special note if there’s been an uptick in drama and unhealthy conflict in your workplace (13:00)

So I have a question for you:

Would you rather go for a leisurely walk on a flat paved path or would you rather bushwhack your way through new and uncharted territory?

For me, the answer depends on the day. It depends on how much energy I have, how much time I have, and what I anticipate the reward might be.

The same is true for how I problem-solve and make decisions. Some days my brain wants a nice, leisurely walk on a paved path, while other days I have the time, and my brain has the energy, to blaze my own trail.

My answer also depends on the complexity of the problem I’m trying to solve or the task I’m trying to do, as well as the risk associated with the decision I’m trying to make.

It seems that the more uncomfortable I am with the process I’m about to engage in, the more I desire an easier route or some kind of shortcut. And guess what? My brain is wired to always seek the shortest pathway, whichever route expends the least energy – but that does not always yield the best solution.

Recently, I was called in to work with a board of directors that was struggling with a hiring decision they had to make. The result of their decision-making would have significant consequences for the organization.

As I was listening to the board’s chair retell the story of How We Got Here, I quickly saw that this was a simple case of a group of really smart people unconsciously allowing their brains to take a mental shortcut.

Why take a shortcut? Maybe they feared that tackling the problem any other way would be exhausting. It could be too time-consuming or, possibly, impractical. They were also clear that this decision would require quite a bit of risk-taking.

I can easily relate to this because, personally, I do not care for the discomfort I find in taking a long time to make a decision.

I’m not the person who spends a week shopping for a new car. I’m not going to visit fifteen furniture stores when I want to buy a new sofa. And if a server in a restaurant hands me a large multi-page menu, I barely glance at it because it has too many words to read, too many choices, and I really just want to get back to enjoying the company of the person I’m dining with. So I quickly skim their mega-menu, and then, to get it over with, I choose something familiar that grabs my attention.

The downside of taking mental shortcuts is apparent when, later on, I notice that my dining partner got a more enticing meal, that someone else got a better deal on a car than I did, or I walk into someone’s living room and see they purchased a style of sofa I’ve never encountered in a color I didn’t imagine was possible.

Because I hurry my decision-making, I have the same old, same old – and now I also have a lot of envy. However, my reward is the relief of being done with the discomfort and saving the time a lengthy decision-making process would have taken.

Since I learned about mental shortcuts, I have an awareness of my tendency in this regard, as well as its risks and rewards. Now when I’m in a decision-making or problem-solving process, I stop myself and make a clear determination on whether I want to take the shortcut or hack my brain chemistry to engage in more intentional decision-making.

But that board of directors was not aware that mental shortcuts – or heuristics – were coming into play. By definition, heuristics are the cognitive shortcuts we employ to ease the burden of the cognitive load of the decision-making process – consciously or unconsciously.

Before we get back to the board, let’s take a look at my dinner decision-making process and see which of the common heuristics I employed. Follow along, and at the end of this article, you’ll find a link to a list of the six most common mental shortcuts, as well as a simple worksheet to help you increase your awareness of how and when you might use them.

So, the first shortcut I used is named the Representative shortcut, which involves making a decision based solely on past experiences instead of through careful analysis and research.

For example, I love a good chicken saltimbocca. So when I’m looking at a menu, I frequently hear myself saying, “I’m just going to go with the chicken saltimbocca,” because I’ve had so many rewarding experiences with that dish.

At the same time, my dining partner reads the description of every dish and even asks the server questions about them. She often ends up with an unexpected but delightful entrée while, eight out of ten times, I end up with food envy.

Does this sound familiar to you? Can you think of a situation where you’ve used the Representative shortcut?

The other shortcut that I used, and I tend to use frequently, is the Familiarity shortcut, which is based in the belief that what was true in the past is still true today.

In the past, I’ve ordered chicken saltimbocca, and I loved it! Therefore, I will probably love it again today. I’ve also had experiences where I bypassed the chicken saltimbocca and tried a different dish, and I wasn’t as satisfied.

The same can be said for my car-buying habits. There was a time in my life when I owned a series of Ford Focus vehicles. I had a sedan. I had a wagon. Then I had another sedan. Then I traded that in for yet another Ford Focus sedan. It’s not that I love the Ford Focus; it’s that I dislike car shopping.

The Ford Focus was a quick and easy decision. I was familiar with the car, and I was familiar with the dealership. Everything about my continued relationship with the Ford Focus was connected to the Familiarity shortcut.

But then, one day, I rode in a friend’s luxury car, and I realized I was missing out. I challenged myself around the Familiarity shortcut, thinking, "Hey, Beth … If you do a little exploration, maybe if you actually challenge yourself and go to the car dealership one stop over, you may be able to drive a nicer car with more options and a much safer driving record.” And guess what? I did, and now I drive a significantly nicer car.

Does the Familiarity shortcut sound familiar to you? Can you think of a time when you employed it and it served you well … or maybe a time when it didn’t bring you the best outcome?

Now, let’s return to the board of directors at that nonprofit. The time had come for them to hire a new leader, and the search process felt overwhelming, a great deal of work for a volunteer board.

So when a candidate familiar to them was suggested, someone who was representative of their community and what they know and understand, they quickly made that hire with no pesky job posting, no interview process, and no reference check. A role vital to the organization was signed, sealed and delivered in less than four hours.

They were so relieved, until a few months later when they began to wonder: What if we had done a more exhaustive search? What if there was a better choice? How might we have benefited from exploring all the options?

I hear this all the time when there’s a vacancy in a company. The client says to me, “Yeah, we decided we are going to hire from within. We know just the person who can step into this role.” And I always push them to explore why they are going with the quick and easy answer. Is this person truly the best solution or is their brain seeking a shortcut?

You can likely see how increasing your awareness around the most common mental shortcuts is valuable, and if you are eager to learn four more heuristics to add to the two I shared here, then click the button to download the worksheet that will help you increase your self-awareness.


We can all benefit from being aware of how cognitive shortcuts – or heuristics, as they’re also known – can serve us well or not, depending on the circumstances. I hope you get a lot from the list and enjoy thinking through that worksheet.

In the meantime, I’m going to wrap up this article and head to my favorite downtown Sacramento restaurant to get some yummy chicken saltimbocca!

- Beth

P.S. Have you noticed an uptick in drama and unhealthy conflict among the colleagues in your workplace? Well, if you have, you’re not alone. There’s a great deal of uncertainty and confusion in the world, and people are being bombarded by opinions and then making decisions using the mental shortcuts we’ve talked about.

If you would like to learn more ways to support your organization, team, staff, or clients, and explore cognitive shortcuts and self-awareness and the impact they have – well, I’ve got really good news for you: our Navigating Challenging Dialogue® workshops are available now.