What Is a Heuristic and How Does It Work?

A brain maze representing a heuristic or mental shortcut
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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. Heuristics are helpful in many situations, but they can also lead to cognitive biases.

A Brief History of Heuristics

It was during the 1950s that the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon suggested that while people strive to make rational choices, human judgment is subject to cognitive limitations. Purely rational decisions would involve weighing such factors as potential costs against possible benefits. But people are limited by the amount of time they have to make a choice as well as the amount of information we have at our disposal. Other factors such as overall intelligence and accuracy of perceptions also influence the decision-making process.

During the 1970s, the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented their research on the cognitive biases that influence how people think and the judgments people make.

As a result of these limitations, we are forced to rely on mental shortcuts to help us make sense of the world. Simon's research demonstrated that human's were limited in their ability to make rational decisions, but 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?

Why do we rely on heuristics? Psychologists have suggested a few different theories:

  • Effort reduction: According to this theory, people utilize heuristics as a type of cognitive laziness. Heuristics reduce the mental effort required to make choices and decisions.
  • Attribute substitution: Other theories suggest people substitute simpler but related questions in place of more complex and difficult questions.
  • Fast and frugal: Still other theories argue that heuristics are actually more accurate than they are biased. In other words, we use heuristics because they are fast and usually correct.

Heuristics play important roles in both problem-solving and decision-making. When we are trying to solve a problem or make a decision, we often turn to these mental shortcuts when we need a quick solution.

The world is full of information, yet our brains are only capable of processing a certain amount. If you tried to analyze every single aspect of every situation or decision, you would never get anything done.

In order to cope with the tremendous amount of information we encounter and to speed up the decision-making process, the brain relies on these mental strategies to simplify things so we don't have to spend endless amounts 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 drinks later with your co-workers? Should you use a bar graph or a pie chart in your presentation? The list of decisions you make each day is endless and varied. Fortunately, heuristics allow you to make such decisions with relative ease without a great deal of agonizing.

For example, when trying to decide if you should drive or ride the bus to work, you might suddenly remember that there is road construction along the standard bus route. You quickly realize that this might slow the bus and cause you to be late for work, so instead, you simply leave a little earlier and drive to work on an alternate route. Your heuristics allow you to think through the possible outcomes quickly and arrive at a solution that will work for your unique problem.

Types of Heuristics

Some common heuristics include the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic.

The availability heuristic involves making decisions based upon how easy it is to bring something to mind. When you are trying to make a decision, you might quickly remember a number of relevant examples. Since these are more readily available in your memory, you will likely judge these outcomes as being more common or frequently-occurring. For example, if you are thinking of flying and suddenly think of a number of recent airline accidents, you might feel like air travel is too dangerous and decide to travel by car instead. Because those examples of air disasters came to mind so easily, the availability heuristic leads you to think that plane crashes are more common than they really are.

The representativeness heuristic involves making a decision by comparing the present situation to the most representative mental prototype. When you are trying to decide if someone is trustworthy, you might compare aspects of the individual to other mental examples you hold. A sweet older woman might remind you of your grandmother, so you might immediately assume that she is kind, gentle and trustworthy. If you meet someone who is into yoga, spiritual healing and aromatherapy you might immediately assume that she works as a holistic healer rather than something like a school teacher or nurse. Because her traits match up to your mental prototype of a holistic healer, the representativeness heuristic causes you to classify her as more likely to work in that profession.

The affect heuristic involves making choices that are strongly influenced by the emotions that an individual is experiencing at that moment. For example, research has shown that 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, lead people to focus on the potential downsides of a decision rather than the possible benefits.

Heuristics Can Lead to Bias

While heuristics can speed up our problem and decision-making process, they can introduce errors. Just because something has worked in the past does not mean that it will work again, and relying on an existing heuristic can make it difficult to see alternative solutions or come up with new ideas. As you saw in the examples above, heuristics can lead to inaccurate judgments about how common hings occur and about how representative certain things may be.

Heuristics can also contribute to things such as stereotypes and prejudice. Because people use mental shortcuts to classify and categorize people, they often overlook more relevant information and create stereotyped categorizations that are not in tune with reality.

A Word From Verywell

Heuristics help make life easier and allow us to make quick decisions that are usually pretty accurate. Being aware of how these heuristics work as well as the potential biases they introduce might help you make better and more accurate decisions.

View Article Sources
  • Bazerman, M. H. (2018). Judgment and decision making. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers.