3 Heuristics: Beneficial Cognitive Shortcuts, or Mental Sabotage?

We’ve all done it. Instead of listening to someone’s perspective, we handily dismissed them as they speak, often before they even open their mouth to articulate an idea. So, when that person, sometimes a close family member or even a dear friend starts to explain why we need more government intervention, or how gun rights are important, or how vegetarianism is a moral imperitive, or how racking up federal debt is dangerous, we’ve already hit our mental shut-off valve, short-circuiting their argument before it had an opportunity to register in your consciousness. 
Heuristics Are Common
Whether you realize it or not, you are likely using a heuristic. Put simply, a heuristic is basically a cognitive shortcut we use to solve problems or to make judgments. And using heuristics is not necessarily a bad thing because they allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action. Essentially, they are a tool to increase thinking efficiency, thus avoiding fatigue. 

For example, if speaking with a co-worker who wants to explain a multitude of reasons why he or she is struggling with a task or a project, you may ask him or her to identify just one or two specific issues that need immediate attention, shelving the rest for another time. Or, when confronted with a difficult question, you may rephrase it in a way that simplifies the issue, thus allowing you to address some aspect of it without being overwhelmed.

Heuristics Are Useful 

And these methods are likely to actually help you navigate your day without being completely mentally drained, which leads to stress burnout. Tonya Hansel, PhD, director of the Doctorate of Social Work at Tulane University, frames it this way: “When humans are overstressed, we become hasty or shut down altogether, and that stress plays a huge role in our behaviors” because “[S]earching for answers can turn a simple decision tree into a maze of stress and burden.”

So, whether you are a doctor, teacher, lawyer, entrepreneur, plumber, or auto mechanic, you will likely employ heuristics that will keep you focused and reserve your energy so you can perform your job as efficiently and effectively as possible. In fact, there is some research which “suggest that the average person makes an eye-popping 35,000 choices per day.” And while many of these decisions are small, consequentially speaking, they still have to be made, so heuristics are needed to avoid a cognitive overload. 


Heuristics can be beneficial or harmful, depending on how we use them.
Source: lifelessons.co

The Availability Heuristic

There are several different types of heuristic schemes people can employ to reduce cognitive overload. One is the “availability heuristic.” As its name implies, the availability heuristic involves making decisions based upon how easy it is to bring something to mind. In other words, it’s a matter of recall. If something is easy to recall, that information is likely to be substituted for other information, even if that information would have been more appropriate or more beneficial. 

For example, we are deluged on a daily basis about the number of COVID-19 related deaths. Every day we hear about the death toll from a variety of news networks and social media platforms. Yet, the actual percentage of people who have died from COVID-19 across the United States is around 2%. Moreover, between vaccines and new medication treatments, odds of full recovery are rapidly improving for the vast majority of people. 

The incidence of heart disease-related death, however, is slightly higher. And unlike COVID-19, heart disease has been, and will likely continue to be, the number one killer worldwide. And there are no vaccinations or quick fixes to the chronic health condition. But because we don’t continually hear about heart disease in the same manner, most people would likely list COVID-19 as their first health concern because the available pool of information created by media saturation predisposes us to rely on the availability heuristic. 

The availability heuristic can also be problematic in relationships. If, for example, you are having conflict about an issue with a family member, each person may be arming themselves with the information they can recall about an issue or situation. The problem is, you may be choosing to only use information you recall, which results in an incomplete picture. And while this helps you justify your argument, it is also fundamentally unfair because you are not looking at all sides of an issue.  

The same can be said for political issues. Because we tend to use sources that are aligned with our worldview, we end up limiting the pool of available information, In doing so, we create confirmation bias, and foster political bubbles that we mentally inhabit, thereby once again coloring our view and making us more likely to invoke the availability heuristic. 

The end result is a variant of the availability heuristic called “memory confirmation,”  which can cause its own set of problems because it can function as a kind of stereotype maintenance in which we preserve our preconceptions about people by drawing selectively from a pool of information, which is informed by how easy access is to the information.

Put simply, our overreliance on the availability heuristic perpetuates and maintains our confirmation bias by lumping people into a group based on our use of available, but limited information. As researchers point out, “Though a certain stereotype about a social group might not be true for an individual, people tend to remember the stereotype-consistent information better than any disconfirming evidence.” 

Representative Heuristic

Another type of heuristic is the “representativeness heuristic,” which involves making a decision by comparing the present situation to the most representative mental prototype. So, for example, if you spot an elderly man walking down the street, he may remind you of your grandfather, so you would automatically associate your grandfather’s characteristics by way of comparison.

If your grandfather was kind and generous, your mental image of the elderly man will probably invoke the same positive regard. Of course, the opposite scenario would be associating the elderly stranger with stinginess and pettiness if that is your mental picture of your grandfather.

While using the representative heuristic is likely inconsequential with regard to strangers with which you never interact, it can cause problems in personal relationships and communication. I can think of a very specific example. My son has two friends, Ivan, and John. Ivan immediately had problems with John, not because of any specific personal conflicts he had with John, but because John reminded him of another person with whom he had regular conflict within his past. 

This negative association led Ivan to not only dismiss John as a valid friendship for my son but also to treat him with general disdain. This, as you can imagine, caused a great deal of friction between my son and Ivan. 

Ivan was eventually confronted by a group of his friends about this unwarranted bias, and to his credit, changed his attitude and behavior towards John. This is a reminder that we are in control of our thinking if we are willing to at least occasionally listen to others.

Affect Heuristic

Perhaps the most powerful heuristic is the “affect heuristic”, which involves making choices that are influenced by the emotions that an individual is experiencing at that moment. By using the affect heuristic, we are able to gauge both the potential risks and benefits of a decision.

Sometimes using the affect heuristic is appropriate. If you are invited to a party, but you are in an extremely bad mood and you feel your presence may be a negative drag on everyone else, it is probably a good decision to decline the invitation because you are actually being considerate of other people’s feelings. In this case, your use of your knowledge about your emotional states served as a cognitive shortcut that saved you time and energy of needlessly deliberating a decision. 

However, the affect heuristic can also cause problems. If you over-rely on emotions to solve a problem or to resolve an issue, you will likely escalate tensions and therefore perpetuate the issue. We are particularly vulnerable to the affect heuristic when it comes to politics. Campaign advertisements often use the affect heuristic to influence behavior. By appealing to our emotions through rhetoric and statistics, we become emotionally preconditioned to make judgments that are often lacking context or countervailing information. 

Overusing the affect heuristic can be highly problematic when making investment decisions. So, if the idea of an investment really stirs our inner desires in a way that is emotionally compelling, we may end up investing in something that is unreliable, or even worse, fraudulent, and we will face significant financial consequences. In fact, Moneycrashers.com states that “A 2018 study published in the Journal of Financial Planning found that investors who use a behavior-modified approach to investing that removed emotion saw returns up to 23% higher over 10 years.”

Heuristics: A Final Thought 

It’s important to remember that heuristics are not a bad thing, They actually enhance our ability to derive pleasure by making some decisions reflexively, thereby freeing our cognitive stores for more important decisions. Yet, they can simultaneously get in the way of making important decisions, and needlessly and negatively complicate our personal relationships. And, on a political scale, they can interfere with creating rational, balanced policies that honor more than one perspective. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that just having an awareness that we engage in heuristics can limit their influence and potential damage by surfacing our biases, something we are sorely in need of in our increasingly polarized society.