Heuristics – mental shortcuts and why we use them

Heuristics – mental shortcuts and why we use them

June 23, 2019 0 By Rick

Heuristics? I had no idea what this was, but it turns out I’ve used this process most of my life without knowing what it is. Merriam Webster defines heuristics as: “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods heuristic techniques, a heuristic assumption also: of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (such as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.” Wow! That’s a lot to digest. Let’s try to make this more understandable by seeing how we use these mental shortcuts in everyday life.

Solving problems and making judgements
I like the way Kendra Cherry, author of Essentials of Psychology and The Everything Psychology Book, defines heuristics. She says: “A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action.” Here’s a good example of what Cherry means.

Who’s more likely to die on the job?
“Which job is more dangerous—being a police officer or a logger? While high profile police shootings might lead to you think that cops have the most dangerous job, statistics actually show that loggers are more likely to die on the job than cops. When it comes to making this type of judgment about relative risk or danger, our brains rely on a number of different strategies to make quick decisions. This illustrates what is known as the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that helps you make fast, but sometimes incorrect, assessments.” https://www.verywellmind.com/availability-heuristic-2794824  While heuristics can help us in many ways, they can also lead to cognitive biases.

Mental shortcuts
We know that we try to make rational choices, despite our cognitive limitations. If we tried to employ purely rational decisions, we would need to factor in potential costs against possible benefits, among many other things. But because we’re limited by the amount of time and the amount of information we have at our disposal; we must make a choice as quickly as possible. It’s these constraints that force us to rely on mental shortcuts to simplify our problem-solving and decision-making process. Our brains are only able to handle and process a certain amount of all the information washing over us.

Quick decision-making
So, how do we cope with this information Tsunami? We speed things up by utilizing these shortcuts, so we don’t need to spend vast amounts of time analyzing each detail. We make hundreds (maybe even thousands) decisions every day. What to eat? What should you wear? How should I get to work? What type of presentation should I use for my meeting? Should I work out today?  Can we trust someone? Should you do something (or not)? Which route should we take? How do we respond to someone upset? Which class should I take? The list is almost endless! Heuristics allows us to make these decisions relatively easily without spending much time contemplating. Thanks to heuristics, we can work through the potential outcomes quickly and reach a solution that will work for us. Although there are many types of heuristics, two useful types can cause even smart people to make dumb decisions: availability and representativeness.

Availability Heuristic
First, the availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that helps us make a decision based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. In other words, we often rely on how easy it is to think of examples when making a decision or judgment, hence the name availability.

Representativeness heuristic
Second, representativeness heuristic is used when we judge the probability or likelihood that something resembles something else so we assume they are related somehow and ignore the probability that they may not be. Take a look at the following problem:

Bob is an opera fan who enjoys art museums and classical music. Growing up, he enjoyed playing chess with family members and friends.  Which situation is more likely?

A. Bob sings in an opera

B. Bob is an office worker

Most people will choose A because Bob’s description matches the stereotype we are likely to hold about opera singers rather than office workers. But the likelihood of B being correct is much higher because there are more office workers in the population than opera singers.

Beware of errors
Although heuristics can speed up our problem- and decision-making processes, they can also cause errors, as we can see from the above problem. We tend to think that because something has worked in the past, it will work again now, and that can hinder our ability to see alternative solutions or come up with new ideas. Heuristics can also lead to poor judgment and cause us to see things inaccurately, sometimes resulting in prejudices and stereotypes. Still, just being aware of how heuristics work and the possible biases they introduce can help us make better and more accurate decisions. Heuristics is a wonderful tool, but we must use it carefully!