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Decision Making and Primitive Automaticity

We live in nearly constant transition as the world around us continues to change quickly and dynamically. We often don’t know what we may have lost (or gained) as situations change or evolve around us. We often struggle how to redefine ourselves in a world we do not yet well understand because of the pace of change.

Technology continues to fundamentally change the world around us as we debate whether we are changing as a result of technology or question if our tech-framed behavior is innate. These are existential questions that we must deal with to determine who we are versus who we perceive we are. A quote from The Matrix sums it up best when Morpheus responds to Neo by saying, “What is reality? Reality comes from electrical pulses firing synapses in the brain and which forms the construct. The reality, then is what the mind believes it is. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Surface Noise

As a society we are discovering how we have been captive to algorithms dialing our emotions up and down, polarizing our thoughts and beliefs, and rattling our perceptions of our individual realities as we negatively compare ourselves to those around us. We are subject to information feeds that deliver filtered information based on what an algorithm believes we want to see because we have interacted with similar information in the recent past.

We are overwhelmed by the amount of choice that we have facing us daily. We live in a world of never-ending choices, whether deciding what to watch, what to buy in endless online aisles or where to eat. Research shows we are easily stressed and become consumed with anxiety when we have too many items to choose from when we only want two or three.

Much research is coming to the forefront that reveals the amount of information the subconscious mind registers as we scan and curate our information, social and newsfeeds, even though we interact with only a few items across the feed via our conscious minds. Images, comments, and emojis become imprinted into our minds and begin to affect our thoughts and feelings, defining how we see others, think about issues and situations, and how we perceive our reality.

What’s worse is that we often don’t even recognize the influences around us which shape our conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions. It is difficult to always know what to think and do when so much of the world around us has an unknown influence on our thoughts, emotions, actions, and behaviors.

Technology, Perception and Reality

We refer to our current time as the Information Era and the Digital Age. These labels are implicitly technology informed and based, but as a society, we don’t yet understand the consequences technology has now and will influence the future. Technology is, by definition, a form of automation. Initially, we designed tech to create efficiencies that make humans more productive. Then we turned to technology to address the societal needs of an ever-growing population, now nearing eight billion people worldwide. It would seem clear that our world population has needs and demands that cannot be met by human hands alone.

Humans created Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) as automated tools, models, and algorithms to be rational and objective (most of the time). Simply stated, modeled on the complexity of the human brain, technology is an attempt to mimic human thought and behaviors at scale. But what is nearly always missed in this conversation is that although the human mind is complex, it is also riddled with faults and perceptions that form individual and herd realities. For example. we often miss our misplaced trust in technology and the unknown impacts it is having on society. Essentially, there is a faulty symbiotic relationship between the technology we are creating and the recognition of the human inputs used to create the technology.

Technology Without Guardrails

Today we are on the technology train that is beginning to feel like a runaway train. We need to get off the train and apply critical thinking across how we and society are being influenced, fundamentally changed, and manipulated by technology. From voice assistants (at work and home) and data analytics to assembly lines and touchless checkout at retail, we are enabled and empowered by tech automation. And it is becoming more and more apparent that we are also influenced and controlled by the proliferation of technology solutions and our reliance on them for everything from interacting with our friends and family to adjusting the home thermostat. The technological determinists uphold that our behavior and values have been fundamentally shaped and reshaped by technology. Take a few moments to consider how your own thought process, beliefs and even actions are influenced and controlled by the technology around you.

There is another factor that is causing some to have an existential crisis: how our emotions play a disproportionate role in how we make decisions and come to conclusions. It almost sounds quaint that our feelings can highjack so many important decisions when we have an excess of information at hand that we can access through a simple keystroke or tap of our fingertips. However, we tend to make decisions automatically based on our feelings and information at hand, rather than through a thoughtful, thorough process. We need a better process to decide when to say yes and when to say no.

Primitive Automaticity

Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, believed “one of the main conundrums of our evolution as a species seems to be that it has largely depended upon our ability to engage in more and more activities without thinking about them. Our world is built upon scientific discovery, but full of ever-declining numbers of people who are scientifically literate. Hence we live in a world of increasing complexity that we often meet with relatively primitive (instinctive) automaticity (kneejerk actions).” Dr. Robert Cialdini has popularized the concept of his appraisal theory that “the individual conclusions we make about specific aspects of the world and ourselves cause an emotional reaction. Essentially, our evaluations (or appraisals) of a situation then cause an emotional response based on that appraisal.” It is a seamless loop. We project the outcome of a decision, which then projects the actual experience of that outcome. Data and facts be damned!

Why do we do this? “We constantly assess our world and the daily situations we encounter through the lens of whether a scenario is good for me/bad for us. The importance of such an evaluation is consistent with the general idea that we automatically evaluate stimuli,” according to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. The lens through which we see the world is formed by the influences (opinions, information, social feeds, and our surroundings). These influences shape our perception of reality. This lens is not based in objectivity; in fact, it rests in emotion, and majorly filters our conscious and unconscious defaults by manifesting our biases.

Cialdini believes that “our world has become overwhelmingly complex, information intensive and fast-paced. A heightened awareness of the influence factors such as reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity, means our ability to make better decisions improves.” Reading between the lines, “instant influence, primitive automaticity, modern automaticity, and sacred shortcuts represent decision making timesavers” that we utilize consciously and unconsciously for better or worse. Keeping informed and current on so many topics that impact us personally and professionally has become a full-time job and has added a tremendous amount of stress to our lives which feeds into our seeking shortcuts that often do not lead to informed decisions.

The ever-increasing complexity of life has exceeded our human abilities to contend with all the available information that demands our attention and consumes our energy. The ability to interact and communicate in broader circles becomes ever more time consuming and is often driven by FOMO, the fear of missing out. We are tasked to manage a level of complexity that has never historically existed. We are watching our evolution unfold real-time with the exponential growth of technology that we barely understand.

We face a societal conundrum that requires us to recognize consciously and concretely the psychological limits of our human capacity and brains. We must understand how to become active self-managers and recognize the influences and controls in the world around us.


When you unpack the primitive automaticity phenomenon, it becomes clear that we typically base decisions on a small or single piece of available information that may be perceptually relevant and meaningful. But this expedience can lead to misinformed, incomplete conclusions which could be embarrassing or even dangerous. A current example we all grapple with is basing decisions on “fake news.” The level of trickery in the larger cultural conversation has made many rely on gut decisions instead of taking the time and energy to become fully informed. It can be overwhelming to know everything and lead to analysis paralysis. Barry Schwartz’s seminal work on The Paradox of Choice examines the conundrum sociologically: When faced by too much choice or information, we default to making decisions based on instinct or what we are familiar with in the past.

We also fall prey to perceptual familiarity; if we have seen or heard something frequently, consciously it becomes our truth as repetition becomes neurologically embedded in our brains. First and foremost, we are very trusting and want to believe what we are told. It takes experience and energy to be skeptical and ask questions and seek out information that may run contrary to what we’ve heard, read and viewed.

The central issue here is do you need to know everything or just enough? Cialdini maintains that no one “has the time” to consider all the relevant facts, analyze the advantages and disadvantages, choose then the best option which life demands; split-second decision-making. As a result, we return to an automatic, primitive, single piece of information that resonates within us” and we take shortcuts.

Consider the shortcuts we take at work.

  • We make assumptions about our customers using our personal perception of reality and institutional filters.
  • We believe we understand critical changes in our marketplace internalizing what we perceive is happening based on our assumption that everyone is like us.
  • We rely on the internet for most of our information using search words that have meaning to us, and we take that information at face value.
  • We understand our employees based on past experiences, observations, and impressions, grouping individuals using our inherent biases into herds based on class, ethnicity, sex or race.
  • We conduct primitive market research not asking the right questions or using questions to produce the answers we want instead of an objective set of results that would result in more concrete intelligence.
  • We analyze the results of research without fully understanding the implications and conclude what we were seeking as opposed to considering what it might be telling us.
  • We ignore transformative ideas that don’t conform to our own because the ideas don’t align with what we believe or understand.
  • We repeat what we have done in the past as a strategy to shape the future, despite the fact that the present and future are very different than the past.
  • We ensure that we don’t lose face in front of our co-workers because we want positive confirmation to bolster our egos.

And to put shortcuts into simple perspective, the classic belief was the notion that the world was flat. Historically we didn’t know what we didn’t know and often didn’t know how to seek out what we needed to know. As such, our reality for hundreds if not thousands of years was based on a faulty premise. And we often defaulted to primitive automaticity.

Any one of these shortcuts can lead to embarrassing outcomes when we rely on only our gut instincts, especially when those types of conclusions are made the higher you go up the leadership ladder. Cialdini believes that “the more complicated the world becomes, the more often individuals will employ decision-making (automatic) shortcuts since we are simply unable to consume, absorb, retain, and then communicate all of the information available to us.” Cialdini insists “shortcuts shall be sacred, and we have the responsibility to boycott, threaten, retaliate, against those who don’t play fairly.”

Thriving in the Digital Age

Being human in a Digital Age is still uncharted territory as our exploration and journey to self-actualization takes a back seat to our day-to-day stress and choice-filled lives. What separates humans from most animals is that we can take in multiple pieces of information at one time and process the inputs to determine current reality and consider what we could or should do. Our thought process works in an interconnected network of information, possibilities and expected outcomes. However, by human nature, we tend to pay attention to the most relevant in-your-face details when making decisions. But using one piece of information to form a conclusion and act on it is a risk. Think in your life when you used a shortcut to make a significant decision; was the outcome positive or negative? Upon reflection, did you regret that decision later? Did the decision box you into a situation that you couldn’t reverse?

Cialdini has an established set of ethical guidelines to manage our kneejerk shortcut defaults by recognizing and countering when we are influenced, controlled, and manipulated to form our thinking, actions, decisions, and responses. He advocates conscious awareness by pausing to reflect, apply cognition, assess, and determine if and how we are reacting with primitive automaticity.

These guidelines are essential to prevent us from taking inappropriate and ineffective shortcuts:

  1. Be truthful (this requires consideration of fact and objectivity to remove emotional, kneejerk thinking and bias).
  2. Forgo manipulation of others and recognize when technology is a manipulator.
  3. Forgo manipulation of facts (don’t seek or validate the answer you want).
  4. Use the facts that already exist naturally in your situation.
  5. Use the facts that demonstrate what is wise for all concerned.
  6. Refrain from any way that could injure a relationship.
  7. Inform (that is, educate) people into agreement.
  8. Ensure any “contrast” used is relevant to the situation.
  9. Own up to any mistake ASAP.

Our default is to take shortcuts and be subject to primitive automaticity. It is the responsibility of each individual and society to become consciously aware. Without awareness, we will surely continue to make the same mistakes over, and over again.

Organizational Primitive Automaticity

At 2040, we work with clients to be aware of how decisions are made and to carefully evaluate how these decisions impact an organization. Critical thinking is a tool we advocate to prevent the unintended consequences of shortcut decision-making. Separating fact from fiction and convenience from doing the necessary hard work are skills we help organizations master and adopt in evaluations and decision making. Awareness of primitive automaticity is critical in formulating strategies for the high performance of people, processes, and cultures in the Digital Age. We encourage you to use all the tools at hand to be competitive in today’s fragmented, highly technological marketplace.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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