The Psychology of Cutting Corners (with a dash of Valentine’s day advice)

Prior to the holidays, I noticed a posting by one of the graduate students in our research centre looking for recruits to join a weekly indoor pick-up soccer game. I was of two minds: after years of terminal couch-potato status, this past summer I decided to increase my activity level and took up biking. It was great, the problem being that it is a seasonal activity for those of us not committed to installing skis on our two-wheeled vehicles. I thought that participating in soccer would be a fun way of staying in some semblance of shape until the arrival of the temperate winds that incite the transition from white to green.

On the other hand I was also apprehensive, I realized that my “team-mates” would be half my age, possess much fitter bodies, wrinkle-free faces, steely legs and trim waists. I was afraid that my participation would be a rehash of the old “peg-leg pirate” soccer team from Monty Python, you know, the skit where a group of one-legged pirates are being run circles around by their two-legged, and more agile, opponents.

In the end, I decided to join, with the realization that my competitors were students who had not yet graduated, and I had some leverage over them; if they hinted at my incompetence, I could always threaten them with increasing the graduation requirements (sort of like increasing the number of flight mission from the novel Catch-22).

Last week, we had a small turnout, meaning more room to run (or waddle, in my case), and reduced opportunity for rest. After the match, I realized I had forgotten to take my watch off prior to heading for my shower. Because I convinced myself that I was dead-tired, rather then unlocking my locker, putting the watch in, and re-securing my possessions, I decided to leave the watch on a counter top, take my shower and then pick it up on the way back to my locker. The plan worked perfectly, except for that last part of picking it up. When I got back home and turned my wrist to check if it was late enough for me to head off to bed, I learned that it was still back at the gym.

For those of you feeling sympathy, let me reassure you it all turned out well. I was able to retrieve the watch the next day, albeit after expending a considerable amount of time and effort. For those of you wondering how someone with a doctoral degree can be so asinine, rest assured I engaged in a most severe and inhumane form of self-reprimand: I conjured up the vision of someone who used to be very close to me, who always went to great, self-righteous, lengths to insist that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and cutting corners falls into the latter category.

Over the weekend, as the pain and fatigue in my muscles provided an unrelenting kinesthetic reminder of the event, I started to reflect on the evils of cutting corners. Does cutting corners inevitably result in a poor outcome?

Of course not! We cut corners all the time. We have to, if we didn’t cut corners, we would not be able to get through our hectic and demanding schedules. So, why do we think that we rarely cut corners, and why do we think that cutting corners generally results in misfortune?

Oddly enough, psychological science gives us the reason: Our brains are really designed to do one thing, which is to organize information (and then to act on that information once it has been processed). But because we have so much information to process, our brains themselves cut corners. More specifically, since our brains need to prioritize information, we create biases determining what we attend to, what we consider important, and how we file the information. Let me illustrate using three examples.

  • Cause and effect: Psychologists have devoted a lot of effort into how we normally determine cause and effect relationships. In order to accurately assess a potential cause and effect relationship, we need to consider four different possible outcomes, (A) events where the potential cause is present and the potential effect is present, (B) events where the cause is present, but the effect is not, (C) events where the cause is not there, but the effect is, and (D) events where both cause and effect are absent. This is diagrammed below:


Now the problem is that we tend not to pay equal attention to all 4 possible events, but rather focus on event A, where both cause and effetc are present. Why? Because events that co-occur provide the most beneficial information for our survival. Elliot Hearst, formerly of the University of Indiana, put it best:

The bias may have evolved as a result of attention to biological events critical to survival. Since these events are relatively rare, an organism that monitored their presence rather than, or in addition to, their absence would require a comparatively simple and economical set of physiological structures and processes. Furthermore, the subsequent learning and memory of associations between “neutral” environmental stimuli and biologically significant events would also be very likely based on the presence of those stimuli… In nature the nonoccurrence of various stimuli is normally the prevailing state and transmits less information about other stimuli then would “occurrence”. (Newman, J., Wolff, W.T., and Hearst, E. (1980). the feature positive effect in adult human subjects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Performance, vol. 6, p. 648).

So, our impression about the evils of corner cutting is simply a vestige of our evolutionary history. Of course, the fact that we have a mental love affair with co-occurring events should not dissuade us from looking at the bigger picture now and again, to recognize our biases, and to reflect upon how our biases may cloud our perceptions of reality.

  • Salience and memory: For those of you born in the 40′s and 50′s, where were you when you first heard the news about JFK’s assassination? For those of you born in the 60′s where were you when Paul Henderson scored that infamous goal that brought pride and joy to all Canadians? For those of you born in the 70′s or later, where were you when you first heard the news about 9/11? Point is, our memory system is designed to prioritize salient events, be they positive or negative. So we remember them more readily. When you cut a corner and nothing happens, you tend not to remember it. On the other hand, most people will remember it’s not such a good idea to stop off at your local depanneur (i.e., the local corner store for you non Quebecois) to purchase a run of the mill floral arrangement for your Valentine. Some timely advice for those few of you out there who have not learned the lesson: Take that extra detour to a flower shop and wait in line for that extra 30-45 minutes with all the other folk who have learned the hard way that cutting corners on Valentine’s day does not impress your honey. While it may be true that “it’s the thought that counts”, it is equally true that some thoughts are created more equal than others, and a corner-cutting idea just doesn’t convey the heart-felt expression of love and affection that we should be aiming for at least once a year.
  • Schemas: Although there are some shared commonalities (like the biases detailed above), we all sort information differently, based on our personalities and our past experience. Yup, over the course of our lives, our brains have adopted routine ways of identifying, sorting and storing information. Psychologists call these individual filing systems schemas; they determine whether and how we categorize information. Schemas are important because they help us determine our successes and our failures, and so also impact on our self worth. So, you may cut a corner, the outcome may be disastrous in the eyes of others, but in your filing system, the event doesn’t even get recorded. Or, you may cut a corner, the outcome will be as good as you hoped for (or at least a very reasonable facsimile), and yet you are burdened with guilt over the knowledge that you cut a corner.

Clinical psychologists have long realized that “negative” schemas play a major role in many mental disorders, especially anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Depressed folk, for example, feel that they can’t do anything right. All of their daily events are interpreted in a way that reinforces the belief that they are useless, worthless and hopeless. Cutting corners can make anxious people even more anxious, because of the fear of a negative evaluation for a job less-than well done. And, of course, by definition, compulsive people are incapable of cutting corners; they perform their rituals in precisely the same way, as many times as they can, without deviation.

One of the goals of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is to change these negative schemas. It does so by encouraging clients to take the time to reflect and ask some simple questions. Do you cut corners often? Will cutting corners necessarily result in a negative consequence? Is the negative consequence that will result all that negative? Are your expectations realistic? As my friend and fellow blogger Cam Zacchia pointed out, it’s never a good idea to cut corners if you’re building a bridge, but if you don’t vacuum under the couch once in a while, well, it’s unlikely that the dust mites will propagate in epidemic proportions.  We should all use these simple techniques to guide our future plans, without fretting about the past. And, in so doing we can also take some solace in the fact that science suggests this is an effective way to organize our lives.

But one final caveat: wait until after February 14th to start asking these questions. On the 14th, make sure you invest the time and effort to show those special people you hold dear that you won’t cut any corners for them. It may not be the best  scientific advice, but it sure is good for the heart.

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Posted in Brain, Human.

Posted on 12 Feb 2008

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2 comments to The Psychology of Cutting Corners (with a dash of Valentine’s day advice)

  1. Janet P
    On Feb 15th 2008 at 20:29

    First of all, never cut corners where a heart is involved. It’s simply not done. You should know this. That’s the law of amore.

    I agree, you always cut corners to get ahead.

    There is always a time and need to cut corners otherwise you never meet deadlines. Theory is nice but in the real world, people who follow all the rules and procedures all the time don’t get ahead.

    I don’t think I like square B. For me, I cut corners so things happen, not that nothing happens. But certainly cutting corners may lead to misfortune but with the time and budget constraints out there, you have no choice. Too much is at risk with stakeholders.

    Who are these people who say they don’t cut corners. Obviously, they don’t realize it when they do it. Everybody cut corners, they just don’t know it. To them it’s normal way of doing things.

    But you know this already. didn’t you???

  2. Romualdo Barillaro
    On Apr 7th 2008 at 09:55

    I think that no matter what you do things will happen whether you cut corners or not. If it’s meant to happen it will happen..just go with the flow and try to do your best..and love the one your with…don’t cut corners there .