The word, “heuristic”, originates from the Greek word, â€œheuriskeinâ€, signifying “to find”. Heuristics are the strategies employed to solve a problem in lesser time and with reduced efforts. They usually do get us to a solution, however, are prone to biases. These may be based on prior knowledge, experience, preconceptions, etc. Some of the heuristics used in daily life include a rule of thumb, stereotyping, intuition, common sense, etc. For example, while trying to decide what to wear to work, you remember that there is an informal party at work today. You realize that wearing your usual formal suit would make you feel awkward there, so you decide to wear an informal dress.
There are several reasons why we use heuristics, despite their biased nature. Some of the common reasons identified by psychologists are:
Reduced effort: Heuristics use previously available knowledge to solve a problem. They do not seek novel solutions but work to merely find a solution. Using heuristics, psychologists identify, is a consequence of “cognitive laziness”. Our mind unconsciously works on the energy-saving principle and would try to choose a path that is not mentally exhausting. This unconscious aspect leads us to use heuristics.
Reduced time: Some set of theories argue that heuristic solutions are usually accurate and not biased. Given their probability of accuracy, they are less time consuming than other methods of decision making. Because decisions are made quickly this way, leaving us with time for other engagements, we resort to heuristics.
Substitution: Yet another set of theories suggest that the human mind tries to understand a situation based on its prior knowledge and finds out a simpler but related substitute for a complex problem. It may try to break down the problem question into simpler subparts based on what it already knows, which may eventually lead to a solution to the complex problem.
There are three common types of heuristics. Availability Heuristic: It works on the principle of how readily available any information to our mind is. While making a decision, several relevant incidents or examples may occur to us. This easy availability of examples in our minds makes us assess the possibility of an event as more common. For example, while deciding a time for going to a shopping complex, the number of incidents such as murder, rape, etc. occurring at night may make us feel extremely unsafe to travel at night. We may immediately decide to travel during the day thinking that such incidents are more common at night than during the day.
Representative Heuristic: In representative heuristic, we try to find similar representations from our past experiences or knowledge. We compare the present situation to an already existing mental model and find solutions based on that model. For example, we may attribute characteristics like an empathic, good listener, composed and rational to a mental health professional, rather than a journalist. When someone with these characteristics is described to us, we are likely to assume them to be a mental health professional.
Affect Heuristic: Our emotional state is likely to have an impact on our decisions. It is observed that when we are in a positive mood state, we would assess our decisions to have lower risks and more benefits. While in a negative mood state, we assess otherwise.
Errors in Heuristics
Using heuristics may ease up the process of decision making; however, complete dependency on them may result in cognitive biases, attribution errors, and even prejudice. Heuristics also play a role in our work environment and may lead to many cognitive biases. Representative heuristic, for example, may develop stereotypes and lead to prejudiced thinking. Availability heuristic may also make incorrect judgments about the possibility of an event occurring. Affect heuristic may lead to attribution errors, where we may inaccurately attribute behaviors to external or internal factors, based on our momentary mood state.
While applying heuristics, we may overlook a lot of useful information and reach irrational conclusions. These decisions may not be based in reality and driven by the unconscious.
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