What is Heuristics?

By Roshni Sen3 min read · Posted May 14, 2023

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Heuristics are mental shortcuts or problem-solving strategies that we use to make decisions quickly and efficiently. They are an essential part of our cognitive process and help us navigate the world around us. Heuristics can be thought of as “rules of thumb” that guide our decision-making processes and are often used in situations where time, information, or resources are limited, or where the problem being solved is complex and ambiguous.

Types of Heuristics

There are many different types of heuristics, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The___availability heuristic_ is based on the idea that we tend to judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily we can bring examples of that event to mind. For example, if we hear about a shark attack in the news, we may start to believe that shark attacks are more common than they actually are because the news media tends to report them more often than other types of accidents.

Another commonly used heuristic is the representativeness heuristic. This heuristic is based on the notion that we frequently assess an event's likelihood depending on how well it corresponds with our mental prototype or usual representation of a category.

For example, if we see a person wearing a lab coat and carrying a clipboard, we may assume that they are a scientist rather than a janitor, because our mental prototype of a scientist includes these attributes.

The anchoring and adjustment heuristic is another commonly used heuristic. This heuristic is based on the idea that we tend to make estimates by starting from an initial value, or anchor, and adjusting our estimate based on additional information. For example, if we are asked to estimate the population of a city, we may start with an initial estimate based on our knowledge of similar cities and then adjust our estimate based on additional information about the specific city we are trying to estimate.

Biases in Heuristics

Heuristics can be very useful in many different situations, but they can also lead to errors or biases if they are not used appropriately. For example, the availability heuristic can lead to biases in perception if we rely too heavily on information that is readily available, such as information from the news media or social media. The representativeness heuristic can lead to biases in judgment if we assume that an individual or event fits a certain category simply because it appears to be similar to our mental prototype.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when using heuristics is that they are not foolproof. Heuristics can be useful in many situations, but they are not always accurate. In fact, heuristics can sometimes lead to significant errors in judgment, especially if they are used in complex or ambiguous situations where more information is needed.

Despite their limitations, heuristics are an essential part of our cognitive process and help us make quick and efficient decisions in a wide range of situations. They can be used to help us solve problems, make judgments, and navigate the world around us. However, it is important to use heuristics judiciously and to recognize their limitations in order to avoid errors and biases in our decision-making processes.

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