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"Heuristics": the mental shortcuts of human thought

July 19, 2024

Vertebrate animals are characterized by tackle dozens of crucial decisions in our day to day. When to rest, with whom to relate, when to flee and when not, what is the meaning of a visual stimulus ... all this falls within the repertoire of small daily dilemmas whose resolution is an inevitable consequence of living in complex environments.

Furthermore, when the vertebrate animal in question is the Homo sapiens of modern societies, these decisions multiply to become massive waves of issues that require our attention: who to vote for, where to look for work, which managers to delegate tasks, etc. There are many questions and not all are easy to answer and, however, except in a few exceptions, we solve them with astonishing ease and without the need to enter into a nervous breakdown. How is this explained? The answer is that, in part, we do not solve these issues as they are presented to us, but rather we take some mental shortcuts called heuristics .


What is a heuristic?

In psychology, a heuristic is a rule that is followed in a unconscious to reformulate a problem and transform it into a simpler one that can be solved easily and almost automatic . In short, it is a kind of mental trick to guide decision-making along easier paths of thought. Think, for example, of the following dilemma, which we will call "original problem":

Who should I vote for in the next general election?

For anyone who believes in representative democracy, this is a relatively important decision, which requires a deep reflection on several issues (environmental management, gender policy, proposals against corruption, etc.) and to which there is a very limited range of possible answers (abstention, blank vote, null vote or valid vote to one of the candidates). Clearly, arriving at the decision of who to vote according to the different criteria and parameters that appear in the electoral programs is a difficult task. So difficult that nobody does it . Instead of answering the initial question, it is possible that an especially seductive heuristic emerges in the minds of some voters:


Which party is made up of the largest number of politicians that I do not like?

This is a very different problem than the first one. So different, in fact, that it deserves a differentiated name: for example, "simplified problem". This is where heuristic thinking influences. The simplified problem only includes one dimension that should be considered, a value scale that can be expressed from 0 (I all fall very badly) to 10 (this match is not bad) and whose answer will be supported only on subjective impressions. However, this second question keeps a equivalence relation with the previous one: we give you an answer to use it to answer the first. In this case, the winning option resulting from the heuristic process, which in this case is the name of a political party, will be transported back to the world of thoughtful reflections and will take a seat at the end of the original question as if nothing had happened.


The easy decision is the automatic decision

All of the above occurs without the voter we use for this example noticing what has happened. As long as this psychological process is guided by the logic of involuntary heuristics , it is not even necessary that the voter intends to transform the original problem into a simplified problem: this will happen automatically, because deciding whether or not to follow this strategy is in itself an added setback that the busy conscious mind does not want to deal with.

The existence of this heuristic will make possible a quick and comfortable response to a complex question and, for that reason, it will renounce the pretension of dedicating time and resources to find the most accurate answer. These mental shortcuts are a kind of minor evil that is used in the face of the impossibility of attending to each and every one of the problems that must be faced, theoretically, by a style of awake and rational thinking. Therefore, the consequences of being guided by them are not always positive.

An example of thinking by heuristic

At the end of the eighties one of the experiments that best exemplify a case of thought guided by a heuristic was carried out. A team of psychologists asked a series of young Germans two very specific questions:

Do you feel happy these days?

How many appointments did you have last month?

The interest of this experiment was to study the possible existence of correlation between the answers to these two questions, that is, if there was any relationship between the answer given to one of the questions and the answer given to the other. The results were negative. Both seemed to offer results regardless of what was answered to the other. But nevertheless, by inverting the order of the questions and to pose them in this way to another group of young people, a very significant correlation did appear. Respondents who had had a number of appointments close to 0 were also more pessimistic when assessing their level of happiness. What had happened?

According to the rules of the heuristic, the most probable explanation is that the people of the second group had extended the answer of the first question, the easiest to answer, to the second, whose resolution would involve reflecting for a while. Thus, while the young people of the first group had had no choice but to seek an answer to the question "do you feel happy these days?", Those of the second group subconsciously substituted this question for which they had answered seconds before, that of the quotes. So, for them the happiness for which they were asking in the experiment had become a very specific type of happiness, easier to assess . The one of happiness related to the love life.

The case of young Germans is not an isolated case. The question about happiness is also substituted when it is preceded by a question related to the economic situation or family relationships of the experimental subject. In all these cases, the question that is posed in the first place facilitates the follow-up of the heuristic at the time of responding to the second thanks to an effect of priming .

Is the use of heuristics common?

Everything seems to indicate that yes, it is very common. The fact that the heuristic responds to pragmatic criteria suggests that, there where there is a decision making to which we do not devote the effort it deserves , there is a trace of heuristics. This means, basically, that a very large part of our mental processes are discreetly guided by this logic. Prejudice, for example, is one of the ways that mental shortcuts can take place when dealing with a reality about which we lack data (How is this Japanese in particular?).

Now, we should also ask ourselves if the use of the heuristic resource is desirable. In this subject there are opposing positions even among the experts. One of the great specialists in decision-making, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, believes that it is worth reducing as soon as we can the use of these cognitive shortcuts, since they lead to biased conclusions. Gerd Gigerenzer, however, embodies a somewhat more moderate stance, and argues that heuristics can be a useful and relatively effective way of solving problems in which we would otherwise be stuck.

Of course, there are reasons to be cautious. From a rational perspective, it can not be justified that our attitudes towards certain people and political options are conditioned by prejudices and light thinking . In addition, it is worrying to think what can happen if the minds behind large projects and business movements are due to the power of the heuristic. It is credible, considering that it has been seen how the prices of Wall Street shares can be influenced by the presence or not of clouds that cover the sun.

In any case, it is clear that the empire of the heuristic is coarse and still to be explored. The diversity of situations in which a mental shortcut can be applied is practically infinite, and the consequences of following or not following a heuristic also seem to be important. What is certain is that, although our brain is designed like a maze in which our conscious mind is usually lost in a thousand minute operations, our unconscious has learned to discover and tour many of the secret passages that remain a mystery to us.

If you want to know more about the concept of heuristic, here is a video in which Gigerenzer talk about this topic (in English):

Bibliographic references:

  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Think fast, think slowly. Barcelona: Random House Mondadori.
  • Saunders, E. M. Jr. (1993). Stock Prices and Wall Street Weather. American Economic Review, 83, pp. 1337-1345.
  • Strack, F., Martin, L. L. Schwarz, N. (1988). Priming and Communication: Social Determinants of Information Use in Judgments of Life Satisfaction. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18 (5), pp. 429-442.

4 Mental Shortcuts That Cloud Your Judgement (July 2024).


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