Pattern recognition and emotional tagging: two ways the brain can trip up

Depressing as it may be, I keep finding examples of how homo sapiens has less sapiens than we might hope. In the Harv. Bus. Rev., Vol. 86, Feb. 2009 at 62, the authors trot out two more cerebral slip-ups (See my post of March 15, 2009: cognitive traps with 21 references.).

“Pattern recognition is a complex process that integrates information from as many as 30 different parts of the brain.” Faced with a new situation, experienced lawyers may think they see how the current situation is similar to a previous situation and then lock in to that pattern. But the brain’s unconscious matching of the new to the old may be wrong, and it is very difficult to unseat.

The second cognitive distortion the article refers to as “emotional tagging.” It is “the process by which emotional information attaches itself to the thoughts and experiences stored in our memories. This emotional information tells us whether to pay attention to something or not, and it tells us what sort of action we should be contemplating (immediate or postponed, fight or flight).” Emotional tags on memories can a general counsel reach a sensible decision, or they can hinder objective thinking.

These two processes of pattern recognition and emotional tagging happen almost simultaneously and almost completely unconsciously. On top of that, we are reluctant to consider alternatives or to revisit our initial framing of the situation.

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