What are heuristics and why do we keep using heuristics?

Heuristics are generalizations, or rules-of-thumb, that can help with problem-solving and probability judgments. These mental shortcuts reduce cognitive load but often result in irrational or inaccurate conclusions.

What are heuristics?

We have to solve many problems daily, some big and some small. And when you think about it, it’s pretty overwhelming how many complex problems we need to figure out fast.

While one might desire to examine the finer aspects of our daily activities in a systematic, deliberate manner, the cognitive demands of everyday life frequently make it impossible to do so.

As a result, to keep up with the stimulus-rich worlds in which we live, the brain must develop trusty shortcuts. Heuristics are efficient problem-solving methods used by psychologists.

Definition of heuristics

Heuristics are the different ways humans try to arrive at a solution quickly. For example, if somebody needed to choose what they would study in college, they would probably choose the most satisfying and practical option.

She might also recall her strengths and shortcomings in secondary school or perhaps even make a list of pros and drawbacks to assist her decision.

Heuristics broadly apply to everyday problems, produce sound solutions, and help simplify mental tasks. In other words, these heuristics make life easier by giving us a go-to solution for common issues we face.

While the notion of heuristics dates back to Ancient Greece (which derives its name from the Greek word for “to discover,” prominent twentieth-century social scientists first published most of what is known today about the subject.

The notion of bounded rationality, developed by Herbert Simon in his study of decision-making under restricted cognitive circumstances such as limited time and knowledge, is the focus here.

The concept of improving an imperfect analysis frames the modern study of heuristics and leads many scholars to credit Simon as a key figure in the field.

Understanding Heuristics

Heuristics are methods that help people, and even companies make decisions quickly through the use of shortcuts and approximated calculations. Most heuristic techniques involve using mental shortcuts to make decisions based on prior experiences.

Some of the common methods for making decisions based on limited information are trial and error, analyzing past data, guesswork, and process of elimination. Such methods typically use easily accessible information that is not specific to the problem but can be broadly applied.

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It gives us the opportunity to make imperfect decisions that can adequately address the problem in the short term.

Heuristic methods, which are derived from the scope of the problem, may vary according to the scenario. Affect and representative heuristics are just a few examples of such heuristic processes.

Different Types of Heuristics

Without realizing it, you likely use heuristics every day.

The cognitive science of heuristics was first explored by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. Their research identified several different types of mental shortcuts that most humans use.

Heuristics research is an ongoing field of study that explores the mental shortcuts humans take to make decisions. Here are three common heuristics:

The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is a pure cognitive bias in which people rely on their memories of past experiences or accessible information to make judgments about something. The availability heuristic may assist you if you’re in a hurry and must come up with an opinion fast. It can easily lead you astray in other situations.

The availability heuristic is when people judge the likelihood of an event by how easy it is to bring to mind. So, for example, if you ask someone about the probability of different types of accidents — like shark attacks or car crashes — they’re more likely than not to overestimate because those events are so memorable.

The availability heuristic, in some cases, might be responsible for the detrimental impact of social media on your mood: If you just see images of individuals having a good time in Ibiza all over your feed, you’ll believe that no one else is enjoying themselves. But this may not be true — you’re simply drawing that conclusion based on what you’re seeing (you’re almost certainly not seeing as many monotonous photo opportunities from other people’s couches).

The Representative Heuristic

The representative heuristic occurs when you place objects or people into categories based on how similar they are to existing prototypes. For example, if you were to assume that a potential dating app suitor would make a better accountant than a CEO because he describes himself as “quiet,” you’re using the representative heuristic.

You’re assuming if you believe a software engineer is more likely to be a massage therapist than someone who says he’s into essential oils and yoga because those characteristics seem more representative of the former than the latter (when in reality, probability dictates that he’s more likely to be a software engineer, considering there are over three million of them in the United States alone).

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The Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is when somebody attributes a person’s behavior to their personality or character instead of the situation they’re currently in. this phenomenon is also called correspondence bias or over-attribution effect.

The fundamental attribution error is one of the most fascinating heuristics because it demonstrates the gap in how people see themselves versus others. We tend to ascribe other people’s actions to internal, permanent qualities like temperament and personality, while we often attribute our own actions to external circumstances.

The fundamental attribution error is currently being displayed in media reports concerning people who are violent against those refusing to wear face masks during the pandemic.

People who commit these acts of violence against those not wearing masks probably believe masks are crucial to keeping others safe. Their actions might be motivated by the belief that people who don’t wear masks are thoughtless and selfish and deserve to be punished.

The people who committed these events likely forgot or chose not to wear a mask at some point, but we usually attribute our mistakes to the situation instead of personal traits. For example, if we’re running late and forget something, we might say, ‘I was running late after a poor night’s sleep.’

Heuristics vs. Algorithms 

According to those who have studied the psychology of decision-making, heuristics and algorithms are similar. However, keep in mind that these are two separate modes of thinking.

Heuristics are methods or techniques that frequently result in problem fixes but are not guaranteed to succeed. They can be distinguished from algorithms, techniques, or procedures that consistently generate a solution.

Algorithms are a dependable way to solve specific problems by following a set of steps. Even though the term is most often associated with math or technology, we use algorithms daily to help us think things through.

The difference between algorithms and heuristics is that the former are mental instructions specific to a particular scenario. In contrast, the latter are broad rules of thumb that may assist the mind in processing and overcoming a wide range of challenges.

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For example, if you are reading this article line-by-line, you are using an algorithm. On the other hand, if you are quickly skimming sections or focusing only on areas new to you, you are using a heuristic.

Why Heuristics Are Used

Heuristics typically take place whenever one of five conditions are met:

  • When dealing with too much data or information
  • When there’s not much time to render a decision
  • When the decision is not an important one
  • When there is not much information available for making the decision
  • Whenever an appropriate heuristic comes to mind during the decision-making process

Keep in mind both the advantages and drawbacks of heuristics while studying them. The prevalence of these methods in human society makes such flaws all the more noteworthy.

Heuristics, particularly expediting decision-making procedures, also predispose us to several cognitive biases.

A cognitive bias is an illogical or unsound thinking pattern leading to a flawed but widely accepted conclusion. In layman’s terms, cognitive bias refers to how one person’s perspective becomes accepted as reality.

Heuristics are good but fallible; “Shortcuts” to help you make rapid judgments in particular circumstances are unavoidable and likely to cause recurring errors.

Consider, for example, the dangers of a faulty application of the representative heuristic described above. While the method encourages one to group situations into broad categories based on external factors and past experiences for the sake of cognitive ease, such thinking is also behind preconceptions and prejudice.

These errors result in favoring one group and/or the oppression of other groups within a given society.

Indeed, the most significant research on heuristics is often concerned with their relationship to systematic prejudice.

The tradeoff between logical reasoning and cognitive efficiency is both a strength and a liability of heuristics, which is a key concept in psychological research.

Final thoughts

Heuristics are a double-edged sword; they can help us make decisions rapidly, but those same shortcuts can also lead to wrong choices.

Our emotions play a role in heuristic decision-making, so it’s something we should be aware of. If we’re thinking about the data and how we feel, we can arrive at conclusions that better match our true desires.