What are Heuristics?

JAN 02, 2021

Cognitive shortcuts that help us make judgements and take decisions quickly are called Heuristics. They are mental rules of thumb that are developed from past experiences, in order to facilitate quick and efficient decision making. However, it must be noted that heuristics run the same risk as other shortcuts: they may be quicker, but they aren’t always accurate.

Almost everyone relies on heuristics to take quick, everyday decisions. The following are three of the most common heuristics employed by people in day-to-day life:

In 1974, researchers presented participants with a list that consisted of male and female names. When asked if the list contained more men’s names or women’s, nearly 80% of the participants reported that the list had a higher number of female names. However, the list actually contained an equal number of Male and female names. What we see at play here, is the availability heuristic. The female names on the list belonged to popular public figures, and therefore, were more easily available to the mind. The availability heuristic is also responsible for people overestimating their chances of being in a plane crash. Although such incidents are relatively infrequent, mass media is rife with such stories. They are therefore, almost always available to the mind. This, in turn, makes us overestimate it’s likelihood.

Closely related, is the representativeness heuristic. Imagine it’s your first day of class, and a new teacher walks through the door. He is young, and has well-styled hair. You also notice a tattoo on his wrist. Do you think he is more likely to be strict or would he be a laid back and fun teacher? Chances are, that you chose the latter. This is often because of the representativeness heuristic. The more a person, object or event resembles typical examples or prototypes of a category, the more we are likely to assume that the person,object or event belongs to that category. In the case of the example, since the teacher’s characteristics match the pro type of a young, fun-loving person, one is more likely to assume that they share all the other characteristics that typical examples from the category have. It goes without saying that this heuristic has a high potential for error. After all, aren’t we supposed to not judge a book by its cover?

Lastly, we have the Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic. The most common example of this presents itself while we find people bargaining at marketplaces. The first price that is presented becomes the anchor, according to which adjustments are made to arrive at the final price. This heuristic involves considering existing information as a reference point around which we make adjustments to accommodate new information. But as is clear in the bargaining example, this may not always be the best way to go. To your surprise, you may find that the next shop was selling it at the price that you. Fought it down to, right from the beginning! The adjustments that we make around the anchors are almost always insufficient.

These are just a few heuristics that are most commonly employed to take quick decisions. It is essential to be aware of these, not only to make better judgments and take better decisions, but also because when they are used in the wrong context, they have the potential to be dangerous. While heuristics offer us a quick way out and save us time, they may also be the root cause of misunderstandings and deceptions. They play a particularly important role in maintaining prejudices as negative stereotypes are often more readily available to mind and easily considered as representative. They then become anchors around which any adjustment that we make will be insufficient. Thus, while heuristics are a handy tool to use for quick, relatively insignificant decisions, they must be avoided while making bigger, more consequential judgements. Here’s to taking more mindful and well informed decisions this new year!