You Already Use Heuristics Every Day. Here’s What They Are

Between balancing professional obligations with personal responsibilities and getting through the everyday tasks that keep you alive, your brain can get more than a little overwhelmed. Thankfully, it has a strategy to stay afloat: relying on heuristics.

Heuristics are those little mental shortcuts that all of us use to solve problems and make quick, efficient judgment calls. You might also call them rules-of-thumb; heuristics help cut down on your decision-making time and help you move from one task to the other without having to stop too long to plan your next step. While heuristics are essential for freeing up your limited cognitive resources, they can also lead to trouble causing us to miss important facts or develop unfair biases.

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Different Types of Heuristics

Whether you know it or not, you’re likely using a variety of heuristics every day. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman are credited with first exploring the science of heuristics in the 1970s, and through their work, they identified several different types of mental shortcuts that most humans use. Since their initial findings, researchers have continued to explore the field of heuristics and identify new ways we as humans take advantage of an array of mental shortcuts. Here are three of the big ones:

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1. The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic comes into play any time you make a judgment about something based on your memories of related instances or available information that’s specific to that scenario. If you’re pressed for time and have to make a quick decision, the availability heuristic may help you quickly arrive at a conclusion. In other cases, it can lead you astray. For example, when asked about the probability of plane crashes, homicides and shark attacks, people tend to overestimate the odds of each just because these events are so memorable — that’s the availability heuristic at play.

The availability heuristic may also be responsible for social media’s negative effect on your mood: If all you see in your feed is pictures of people partying in Ibiza, you’re likely to assume you’re the only one not having the time of your life. But that may not be true — you’re just jumping to that conclusion based on the evidence that’s available (you’re probably not seeing as many boring photo ops from other people’s couches).

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2. The Representative Heuristic

When you categorize objects (or other people) based on how similar they are to existing prototypes, you’re calling on the representative heuristic. For example, if you assume a potential dating app suitor would make a better accountant than a CEO because he describes himself as “quiet,” you’re using the representative heuristic.

If you presume another guy is more likely a massage therapist than a software engineer because he says he’s into essential oils and yoga, you’re making that assumption because those qualities sound more representative of the former than the latter (when in reality, probability dictates that he’s more likely to be a software engineer, considering there are more than 3 million of them in the United States alone).

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3. The Fundamental Attribution Error

Also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect, the fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to attribute a person’s behavior to their personality or character rather than the situation they’re in.

“I believe the fundamental attribution error is one of the most interesting heuristics, because it reveals the disparity in how humans think of themselves versus other people,” Kate Gapinski, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, says via email. “We tend to attribute the behavior of others as being driven by internal, stable characteristics such as character and personality, while we often attribute our own behavior as stemming from external circumstances.”

According to Gapinski, a clear current example of the fundamental attribution error in action has to do with media reports of violence against people who refuse to wear face masks during the pandemic.

“These attacks, presumably committed by people who believe masks are essential for public safety, may be driven by an interpretation that those not wearing them are fundamentally selfish, inconsiderate and reckless toward others and thus deserve to be punished,” Gapinski says. “Ironically, it’s quite likely that the aggressors of these events have themselves forgotten or chosen not to wear a mask at some point. However, the fundamental attribution error predicts that we will tend to blame the situation rather than personal traits like character for our own mistakes (e.g., ‘I was running late after a poor night’s sleep, so no wonder I forgot’).”

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