Heuristics: A Complete Guide to Mental Shortcuts

Did you known that our brain uses strategies to process information and draw conclusions every time?

We constantly make decisions and judgments every day.

For instance, whom to trust, how to be successful, how to lose weight and the list goes on and on.

If we carefully consider and analyze every possible outcome of these decisions and judgments, it will be a never ending story.

Therefore, to avoid such kind of never ending story, our mind makes things easier by using efficient thinking strategies known as heuristics.

Now, to know more interesting things about heuristics, you need to read the article below.

What is Heuristics?

A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.

In short, heuristic is rule-of-thumb strategies that allows people to function without constantly stopping to think about next course of actions.

Heuristics processes make problems less complex by ignoring some of the information that’s coming into the brain.

For instance, when walking down the street, you see a big hole on the side of the road.

Without a break in pace, you would likely to choose to walk around that area instead of jumping right into the hole.

Your intuition would tell you that walking in front of the big hole could be dangerous and you could fall down.

So, you make a snap judgment to walk around the danger zone. You would probably not stop and assess the entire situation or calculate the probability of falling.

However, you would use a heuristic to make the decision quickly without using much mental effort.

Today, heuristics have become an influential concept in the areas of judgment and decision-making.

Heuristics are helpful in many situations like above, but they can also lead to cognitive biases.

A Brief History of Heuristics

In the 1950s, the Novel-prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon published his A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice.

The book focused on the concept of on bounded rationality-the idea that people must make decisions with limited time, mental resources, and information.

Herbert Simon suggested that while people strive to make rational choices, human judgments is subject to mental limitations.

Purely rational decisions would involve weighing such factors such as potential costs against possible benefits.

However, due to limited amount of time people make quick decisions with the amount of information they possess.

During the 1970s, the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented their research on the cognitive biases.

They researched on ho cognitive biases influence how people think and the judgments people make.

Simon’s research demonstrated that humans were limited in their ability to make rational decisions.

However, it was Tversky and Kahneman’s work that introduced the specific ways of thinking people rely on to simplify the decision making process.

Why Do We Use Heuristics?

Heuristics plays an important role in both problem-solving and decision-making process.

When we are trying to solve a problem or make a decision, we often turn to these mental shortcuts.

The world is full of information, yet our brains are capable to process only some or limited amount.

Hence, it is not possible to analyze every single aspects of every situation or decisions.

That’s when people start to use heuristics method in their daily lives.

For instance, people substitute simpler but related questions in place of more complex and difficult questions.

That’s because of their cognitive laziness to make decisions or because their brain cannot put extra effort on things.

In order to cope up with tremendous amount of information we encounter the brain relies on these mental strategies to simplify things.

This way we don’t have to spend endless amounts of time analyzing every details.

Heuristics allows us to think through the possible outcomes quickly and arrive at a solution that will work for the problem.

Types of Heuristics

The Availability Heuristics

The availability heuristic involves decision making based upon how easy it is to bring something to mind.

This type of heuristic is often categorized for lazy people who do not want to put much effort on thinking process.

When you are trying to make a decision, you might quickly remember a number of relevant examples.

Since these are readily available in your memory, you will likely judge these outcomes as being common.

For instance, you hear about recent airline accidents in the news. You might feel scared to travel and rather choose a bus or a car as alternative.

Because those examples of air disasters came to mind easily, the availability heuristics leads you to think that plane crashes are more common.

The Representative Heuristics

The representative heuristics involves decision making by comparing the present situation to the most representative mental prototype.

When you are trying to decide if someone id trustworthy, you might compare certain aspects to others.

For instance, if you have recently started to like a person and want to date him/her, you compare him/her with your ex.

If you meet someone who is quite thin, you might assume that he/she doesn’t have proper diet.

Instead, he/she might be fighting with some health problems or it might be a genetic issue.

Because his/her traits match up to your mental prototype, the representativeness heuristic causes you to think in a certain way.

This is one of the traits of heuristics that often leads to cognitive bias or stereotyping.

The Affect Heuristics

The affect heuristics involves making choices that are strongly influenced by the emotions that individual is experiencing at that moment.

For instance, people are more likely to see decisions as having higher benefits and lower risks when they are in a positive mood.

Negative emotions, on the other hand, leads people to focus on bad things rather than good decision making process.

How Heuristics Can Lead to Bias

While heuristics can lead to speed the judgments and decision-making process, they can also lead to cognitive bias.

Just because something has worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work again.

Therefore, relying on an existing heuristic can make it difficult to see other alternative solutions to the problems.

Heuristics can lead to inaccurate judgments about how common things occur and about how representative certain things may be.

In addition, heuristics can also contribute to things such as stereotypes and prejudice.

Because people use mental shortcuts to classify or categorize people, they sometimes overlook or miss more relevant information.

Hence, that often leads to cognitive bias or stereotype categorizations that are not in tune with reality.