What Is Mindlessness? Bad Choices Without Thinking

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What is mindlessness? How does it prevent you from making good decisions?

Mindlessness is when your subconscious takes over. You’re not actively thinking about what you’re doing and you’re just on autopilot. This doesn’t always lead to good decision making.

So, what is mindlessness? Read on to find out.

Subconscious Desires

Cognitive biases aren’t the only culprits in our imperfect decision-making; our conscious and subconscious desires play a role as well.

These desires become especially important when individuals or groups of individuals display “dynamically inconsistent” behavior—that is, when we initially prefer A over B but later choose B over A. What is mindlessness? When we tell ourselves we’ll go to the gym after work, but, when 5:00 rolls around, we head directly home to binge TV.


To define “temptation” adequately, it’s essential to introduce two concepts: “hot states” and “cold states.” When we’re in a “hot state,” our senses are aroused, and we’re especially susceptible to particular stimuli. For example, if we’re thirsty and come across a soda vending machine, we’re in a hot state, primed to yield to a particular desire.

When we’re in a cold state, oppositely, our senses are subdued, and we’re less susceptible to particular stimuli. For example, if we’re sitting at our desk drinking a bottle of water and thinking about how much better water is for us than soda, we’re in a cold state. 

Something is “tempting” when we consume more of it when we’re in a hot state than in a cold state.

One of the difficulties of resisting our temptations is that we devise methods of self-control when we’re in a cold state and chronically underestimate the power of our hot states. (Behavioral economists call this the “hot-cold empathy gap.”) How many times have you promised to limit yourself to just one cookie and ended up eating three? That’s the hot-cold empathy gap at work. 

What Is Mindlessness?

So what is mindlessness? A close relative of cognitive biases like loss aversion and status quo bias, “mindlessness” signifies our tendency to go on autopilot when performing routine tasks.

Some of our most mindless behavior occurs when we’re eating. Two studies illustrate the fact. In one, a behavioral economist gave moviegoers stale popcorn in either a medium bucket or a large one. No one liked the popcorn—it was five days old!—but the economist found that the people given the larger bucket ate 53% more popcorn on average.
In the second study, the same economist presented subjects with a large bowl of Campbell’s soup and told them they could eat as much as they wanted. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the bowl featured a mechanism beneath it that refilled the bowl automatically. The economist found that subjects ate a tremendous amount of soup without realizing how much they were consuming.

What Is Mindlessness? Bad Choices Without Thinking

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  • How to increase the organ donation rate by over 50% through one simple change
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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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