Heuristics: Helpful, Harmful, and Somewhere in Between

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             In a psychology class I participated in a while ago, I was asked to take a test online. The test results shocked me! I could not understand how it was possible for the test results to be exactly what I had in mind. I would like you to see how interesting the test is for yourself. Please take a minute, and follow these simple and quick steps to take the test before you continue reading.


1.       Make sure you have about four minutes to complete the test.

2.       Get a pen and paper ready.

3.       Go to the following link: https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~dforsyth/df/h.htm

4.       Follow the directions for the test.

5.       Be amazed!

6.       Share with friends. After all, it is fun!


            The lesson of the test was about heuristics. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012), "...to help in the processing of information, people regularly and automatically use cognitive shortcuts, or heuristics, when making judgments"(p. 240). So let's look back at the test and apply this idea. We will examine the part of the test that asks us to think of a country that starts with a "D". Now, most of you probably did not think of the Dominican Republic, Djibouti, or another country that started with a "D", but instead you probably thought of Denmark. The brain may be used to hearing about Denmark, or that is what first comes to mind when asked to think of a country that starts with a "D". What about thinking of a mammal that starts with an "E"? Sure there is more than one answer, but I'm betting that the majority of people thought of an elephant. The same idea can be applied to the color of the elephant; did you think of grey?  


heuristic elephant.jpg


                The brain creates shortcuts to help us make decisions in a quick and easy manner. We tend to stick to what is more well-known to us. Instead of my brain having to be thrown into overdrive trying to figure out a mammal that starts with the letter "e", it automatically gave me the word elephant. The word elephant has been in my vocabulary since I was a child being taught to associate animals with each letter of the alphabet in kindergarten. Heuristics are created to aid people in decision making, helping them put as little effort as needed to make a quick decision on various topics. It would appear that speed and low levels of difficulty are positive contributions of heuristics, but are there negative consequences of heuristics? Yes!


               Certain types of heuristics can create bias in decision making. People can become victims of hindsight bias, confirmation bias, and a bias that stems from the representativeness heuristic. Schneider et al. (2012) states, "The hindsight bias refers to people's tendency to believe, in retrospect, that an event was more predictable than it actually was" (p. 240). An example of hindsight bias is someone looks at the sky, sees rain clouds, says that it might rain, and then it does rain. The person will turn the "might rain" into something more stable, suggesting that they are better at predicting things than they really are. This can lead to cocky decision making, prevent learning from experiences, and prevent more effective decision making. Confirmation bias happens when people look for evidence that supports what they think, rather than information that may be correct. People may ignore accurate information or misinterpret information to help make things copasetic with their own beliefs (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). For example, my mother bought a blouse at one store because she believed it was the same blouse at a more expensive store for a lower price. She went to the more expensive store to find the same blouse she had purchased at another store. She compared prices. She was searching for information that would confirm her own belief of the blouse she purchased being cheaper than it would be in a name brand store. Finally, the bias based on the representativeness heuristic. According to Schneider et al. (2012), "[This bias] leads people to make categorical judgments based on the extent to which an object, event, or individual is perceived to fit or represent a particular category" (p. 241). This bias can lead to close-mindedness, like stereotyping, and several types of fallacies.












              The lesson is that heuristics can be useful for making quick and easy decisions, but sometimes more effort in the thought process is required to prevent one from making poor judgments or decisions in various situations. Heuristics, like the ones used in the test at the beginning of this blog, can be fun. However, pay mind to relying too much on the mind's mental shortcuts. Multiple biases and errors can stem from heuristics, such as stereotyping, cocky prediction making, and more!




Heuristics Test. N.d. Retrieved from: https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~dforsyth/df/h.htm

Schneider, F. W., Coutts, L. M., & Gruman, J. A. (2012). Applied social psychology, understanding and addressing social and practical problems. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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1 Comment

Harmony, your article on heuristics reminded me of a book review I had recently read about habits (Sansom, 2012). The review was for a book titled, "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, which I have not yet read. The review, however, discusses the brain's propensity to "like habits becasue they are low energy".

The author of the review, Lisa Sansom, cites neuro-imaging studies conducted with rats running in a maze (Sansom, 2012). She says that while learning the maze there is all types of brain activity but that once the learning is completed the brain only lights up on the scanners when cued, such as when the gate opens. The article can be found here:


In discussing habit, they remind me very much of heuristics. Short cuts, energy savers. Often though, we think of habits as something larger than selecting Denmark and grey elephant. Habits can be nail biting, smoking, or even exercise. They come in both the "good" and "bad" varieties and can be changed with practice and effort, yet scientists can still see the old habit pathways in the brain after a new habit is developed according to the article (Sansom, 2012).

When the semester ends and I have some free leisure reading time, I'd like to read "The Power of Habit". My unscientific theory is that 'habit" and "heuristic" are very close cousins and I believe that by gaining control of our own automatic responses, the power to change for both groups and individuals will be profound!


Sansom, L. (2012) The Power of Habit (Book Review), PPND. http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/lisa-sansom/2012031921596

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