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Influence – The Human Shortcut, powerful but imperfect

Posted April 11th, 2007

Psychological research has shown that the human brain often uses shortcuts to solve problems. Rather than fully digesting all information before producing an exact answer, the brain sometimes uses tools to quickly generate an estimate. These estimates, however, aren’t always accurate.


This picture is a good example of how shortcuts can cause the brain to be tricked. Although the lines are identical in length, the line on the right appears to be longer because the brain uses a shortcut that leads it to believe it is solving a three-dimensional problem. The brain is tricked into believing the line on the right is farther away. And in a three-dimensional problem, items that are farther away appear longer than items that are closer.

Vision is not the only problem that the brain solves by using shortcuts, psychologists have also realised that we make use of shortcuts in our everyday judgements. Consider, for example, a plane crash in England in 1989. The plane, a Boeing 737 was in trouble due to its left engine not working, which in itself is not an insurmountable problem as a plane could still be landed safely on just the one engine. However, the black box flight details from the plane tell us an interesting story.

Shortly before crashing, the captain, when asked which engine is not working, is heard to say: “It’s the le……right one”. The right engine (the only good one) was then switched off and the plane crashed.

Now this story does over simplify what was a complex issue. However, we can draw an interesting line of thought. In the cockpit with the captain were several other members of the crew who would have been well aware that it was in fact the left engine that was not working. So why did they follow the orders of the captain?

This demonstrates the shortcut rule that goes, “If an expert said so, it must be true.” In human interactions there is an unsettling tendency for people to follow orders simply because somebody in perceived authority tells them to.

This is a snippet from Trainer Bubble training materials. Look for the ‘The Power of Influence’ in our trainer resources section of Trainer Bubble.

One thought on “Influence – The Human Shortcut, powerful but imperfect

  1. My dad has been writing a book precisely on point with this blog, I have emailed him the web address so perhaps he could pick up a couple pointers. Fantastic Job.

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