Imagine Health

Heuristics – How We Make Decisions and Assumptions

Have you ever stopped to think about how many decisions you actually made today? What should you have for breakfast? What should you wear today? Should you drive or take the bus? Should you exercise or go out for drinks later?

We make decisions and judgements every day. If we had to stop and analyse every possible outcome and judgement we made, then we would get nothing done or go nowhere. To make it easier for us, our brain creates mental shortcuts called Heuristics.

Heuristics are quick automatic ways that we process information compared to if we were to think about it consciously. Heuristics are helpful for quick efficient thinking, however it can lead to systematic errors in thinking that affects the decisions and judgements that we make (i.e. cognitive biases).

Types of Heuristics

Two common heuristics include the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic:
The availability heuristic;
Involves making decisions based upon how easy it is to bring something to mind. When trying to make a decision or judgement, you might rely on how easy it is to think of or remember a number of relevant examples. Since we can gain access to these examples so easily and quickly in our memories, we are more likely to judge these outcomes as being common or frequently occurring.
For example, if you are thinking of going on a plane soon and suddenly start remembering recent airline accidents, you may feel like traveling by plane is too dangerous right now.

Because examples of airplane accidents came to mind so easily, the availability heuristic leads you to think that airplane accidents are more common than they really are.


The representativeness heuristic;

Involves helping us make a decision by comparing information to our mental prototypes. In other words, we approximate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing example that already exists in our mind. Our examples are what we think is the most characteristic of that event or topic. However, unfortunately many examples of the representativeness heuristic that we think of involve yielding to stereotypes.

For example, if you were shown a picture of two people, person A and person B. Person A is well dressed, and has a briefcase in his hand. Person B is dressed very causal, and looks as if he just woke up. Who would you think is most likely to show on time to a meeting? Offhand from the information given, most people will choose person A based on past experiences and mental prototypes.

Heuristics are amazing time savers and make it very useful for our busy lives. However, even though heuristics helps us save time and energy it is done by making a snap decision without thinking very deeply. Careful consideration needs to be taken sometimes, so you don’t make an error in judgement or decision making.

Written by Alannagh Kelly

Assistant Psychologist.