Unconscious Rules of Thumb

Some of the decisions that I make are based on thorough calculations, analysis, evaluation of available options, and deliberate considerations of costs and benefits. When I am planning my workout routine, I think hard about how my legs have been feeling and what distance, elevation, and pace is reasonable for my upcoming workouts. I think about how early I need to be out the door for a certain distance, and whether I can run someplace new to mix things up. I’ll map out routes, look at my training log for the last few weeks, and try putting together a plan that maximizes my enjoyment, physical health, and fitness given time constraints.

 

However, outside of running, most of my decisions are generally based on rules of thumb and don’t receive the same level of attention as my running plans. I budget every two weeks around payday, but even when budgeting, I mostly rely on rules of thumb. There is a certain amount I like to keep in my checking account just in case I forgot a bill or have something pop-up last minute. Its not a deliberate calculation, it is more of a gut feeling. The same goes for how much money I set aside for free spending or if I feel that it is finally time to get that thing I have had my eye on for a while. My budget is probably more important than my running routine, but I actually spend more time rationally developing a running plan than I spend budgeting. The same goes for house and vehicle maintenance, spending time with friends and family, and choosing what to eat on the days we plan to do take-out.

 

The budget example is interesting because I am consciously and deliberately using rules of thumb to determine how my wife and I will use our money. I set aside a certain amount for gas without going to each vehicle and checking whether we are going to need to fill up soon. I am aware of the rules of thumb, and they are literally built into my spreadsheet where I sometimes ask if I should deviate, but usually decide to stick to them.

 

I also recognize that I have many unconscious rules of thumb. In his book Risky Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes the following about unconscious rules of thumb:

 

“Every rule of thumb I am aware of can be used consciously and unconsciously. If it is used unconsciously, the resulting judgment is called intuitive. An intuition, or gut feeling, is a judgment:
  1. that appears quickly in consciousness,
  2. whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, yet
  3. is strong enough to act upon.”
I have lots of intuitive judgements that I often don’t think about in the moment, but only realize when I reflect back on how I do something. When I am driving down the freeway, cooking, or writing a blog post, many of my decisions flow naturally and quickly. In the moment the decisions seem obvious, and I don’t have to think too deliberately about my action and why I am making a specific decision. But if I were asked to explain why I made a decision, I would have a hard time finding exact reasons for my choices. I don’t know exactly how I know to change lanes at a certain point on the freeway, but I know I can often anticipate points where traffic will slow down, and where I might be better off in another lane. I can’t tell you why I chose to add the marsala wine to the mushrooms at the precise moment that I did. I also couldn’t explain why I chose to present a certain quote right at the beginning of a post rather than in the middle. My answer for all of these situations would simply be that it felt right.

 

We use unconscious rules of thumb like these all the time, but we don’t often notice when we do. When we are budgeting we might recognize our rules of thumb and be able to explain them, but our unconscious rules of thumb are harder to identify and explain. Nevertheless, they still have major impacts in our lives. Simply because we don’t notice them and can’t explain them doesn’t mean they don’t shape a lot of our decisions and don’t matter. The intuitions we have can be powerful and helpful, but they could also be wrong (maybe all this time I’ve been overcooking the mushrooms and should add the wine sooner!). Because these intuitions are unconscious, we don’t deliberately question them, unless something calls them up to the conscious level. The feedback we get is probably indirect, meaning that we won’t consciously tie our outcomes the to the unconscious rules of thumb that got us to them.

 

I am fascinated by things like unconscious rules of thumb because they reveal how little we actually control in our lives. We are the ones who act on these unconscious rules of thumb, but in a sense, we are not really doing anything at all. We are making decisions based on factors we don’t understand and might not be aware of. We have agency by being the one with the intuition, but we also lack agency by not being fully conscious of the how and why behind our own decisions. This should make us question ourselves and choices more than we typically do.

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