The 25 Cognitive Biases: Instinctive Reaction Tendency

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Charles T. Munger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the instinctive reaction tendency? How do you keep calm in stressful situations?

The instinctive reaction tendency is the inclination to react without thinking during stressful situations leading to ill-informed decision making. You can control the tendency by keeping calm during stressful situations and recognizing that you still have some time to think methodically before making a decision.

Read on to learn more about the instinctive reaction tendency.

What It Is

Stress prompts faster and more extreme reactions.

Light stress can slightly improve performance, such as on tests.

Why It Evolved

When a tiger jumps at you, you don’t want to be sitting and thinking about what to do. The instinctive reaction tendency evolved because you want to react quickly, even automatically, to resolve the situation. Normal stressful situations fall on that spectrum of stress.

How It Can Be Harmful

The instinctive reaction tendency causes you to rely on faulty heuristics rather than methodical thinking.

Stress amplifies other biases:

  • Social proof tendency: there’s no time to think, do what everyone else does.
  • Deprival superreaction: my stuff is being taken away! Quick, attack.
  • Reciprocation, Kantian fairness, Disliking/hating tendency: as in road rage—someone’s acting unfairly and taking away my time; I hate this person; I want to unleash my fury on this person; I’m stressed and I don’t have time to ponder whether this is a good idea.

Extreme, prolonged stress can lead to mental breakdowns and a persistent rewiring of the brain.


The scientist Pavlov experimented with stress in dogs. He would put a dog in a cage and flood the cage until there was barely any air left, imposing a great amount of stress. This caused a prolonged behavior change where the dogs started disliking the handlers. Repeated exposure to stress caused a persistent change in behavior.

Interestingly, he couldn’t reverse a breakdown except by reimposing stress. 

There might be an association between mental strength and strength of rewiring: the dogs that were hardest to break down were also the hardest to return to their pre-breakdown state.


During a stressful period, you can control your instinctive reaction by trying to maintain your calm. Think about how much time you have to react and what happens if you don’t act before then. You may have more time to think than you expected.

When you’re calm, use checklists to think through your decisions.

The Instinctive Reaction Tendency—Explained

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  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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