What are your default settings?

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2 minutes read

I recently read Enlightenment now by Steven Pinker which I highly recommend reading. Among the many ideas within it he talks about some of the bugs that creep into our ways of thinking and reasoning about the world. If you’ve ever read Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman or watched any TED talk about reasoning and decision making you’ll be quite familiar with some of these bugs. 

This got me thinking that a lot of these bugs are kind of like our default settings and it needs conscious self-awareness to switch them to something else. The default approach being fast and automatic (System 1 style of thinking from Daniel Kahneman) and more towards conscious self-awareness being the slow and deliberate (System 2 thinking). 

While this isn’t an exhaustive list and not everyone is affected by the same defaults to the same extent. I think we can all find examples within ourselves and in other situations where this default approach has influenced our thinking. 

I’ve grouped these into

  • Thinking in generalities 
  • Focusing on self-interests
  • Believing in magic 

These break down further into specific behaviour and thought patterns, see image below

What are our default settings?

I have also tried to include citations and research evidence, see the grey source boxes in the above image. 

I know I have fallen foul to these bugs and I bet there is examples of it throughout this blog. So what can we do?

One approach that I think could help to override these defaults is by developing our self-awareness about them. 

  • Firstly by understanding what they are and what they mean to you. Can you think of any examples of you being affected by this way of thinking, believing and focusing? 
  • Secondly recognise that they do affect you just as much as other people but you probably spot them in others more than yourself. Focusing on evidence that confirms our beliefs while dismissing evidence that contradicts it.
  • Thirdly slow down and work backwards though your thinking.  What facts, observations, correlations and feelings are you using in your analysis of the situation? 

This is by no means fool proof and whenever you end up in fast modes of thinking you’re likely to fall prey to one or more of these defaults. So should you even try? I think we should and with plenty of time and practice I believe we can start to alter these defaults.

In the meantime one of the best ways to check yourself is to work in groups. Especially within groups that you believe you can take interpersonal risks* with. This will help with getting feedback in an open and honest way so you can start to make better decisions and more reasoned analysis of situations. This will also help with starting to understand what is influencing your thinking and if it is one of these defaults at play.

I strongly believe in incremental improvement and finding good sources of information about yourself is a great place to start that personal journey of self-improvement.

* You can learn more about interpersonal risks from my why do we need psychological safety in software teams post. 


  • A lot of these defaults can affect us in such a way that they are interconnected and can be quite difficult to pick part    
  • I’ve found that being able to recall the defaults from memory to be really helpful. This helps when you’re being mindful and looking at your thinking to see if one of these defaults is at play. If you need to keep looking them up it not only slows you down but makes it less likely to happen. The easier something is the more likely you are to do it

What do you do to stop your default thinking taking over?

Have you come across any other defaults that you or others use?

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