A heuristic is a mental shortcut that enables people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about what to do next. Heuristics are useful in many situations, but they can also lead to cognitive biases.
People strive to make rational decisions, but human judgment is subject to cognitive limitations. Purely rational decisions would involve weighing factors such as potential costs and potential benefits. But people are limited by the amount of time they have to choose from and the amount of information we have at our disposal. Other factors, such as general intelligence and the accuracy of perceptions, also influence the decision-making process.
As a result of these limitations, we are forced to rely on mental shortcuts to help us make sense of the world.
Why are heuristics used?
Why do we trust heuristics? Psychologists have suggested a few different theories:
- Effort is reduced. People who use heuristics are like a kind of cognitive laziness. Heuristics reduce the mental effort required to make decisions.
- Substitution. Some use heuristics to substitute simpler but related questions in place of more complex and difficult questions.
- It is faster. Heuristics are actually more accurate than skewed. In other words, we use heuristics because they are fast and generally correct.
Therefore, heuristics play an important role in problem solving and decision making. When trying to solve a problem or make a decision, mental shortcuts are often used when a quick solution is needed. The world is full of information, but our brains are only capable of processing a certain amount. If you tried to analyze every aspect of every situation or decision, you would never achieve anything.
In order to cope with the enormous amount of information that we encounter and speed up the decision-making process, the brain relies on these mental strategies to simplify things, so that we do not have to spend an infinite amount of time analyzing every detail. .
You probably make hundreds or even thousands of decisions every day. What should you have for breakfast? What should you wear today? Should you drive or take the bus? Should you go out for a drink with your coworkers? Should you use a bar chart or a pie chart in your presentation? The list of decisions you make every day is endless and varied. Fortunately, heuristics allow you to make such decisions relatively easily without much agony.
Types of heuristics
Some common heuristics include the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic. Next we will understand them better.
- Availability heuristic. It involves making decisions based on how easy it is to bring something in mind. When you try to make a decision, you will quickly remember a series of relevant examples that will help you make a better decision.
- Representativeness heuristic. It involves making a decision by comparing the current situation with the most representative mental prototype. When trying to decide if someone is trustworthy, you can compare aspects of the person with other mental examples they have. A sweet older woman may remind you of your grandmother, so you can immediately assume that she is kind, gentle, and trustworthy. If you know someone who is into yoga, spiritual healing, and aromatherapy , you can immediately assume that they are working as a holistic healer rather than being a nurse, for example. Because her traits match your mental prototype of a holistic healer, the representativeness heuristic causes her to rank as the one most likely to work in that profession.
- Heuristic of the defect. It involves making decisions that are influenced by the emotions a person is experiencing at the time. For example, people are more likely to see the decisions with the greatest benefits and the least risks when they are in a positive frame of mind. Negative emotions, on the other hand, lead people to focus on the potential downsides of a decision rather than the potential benefits.