Heuristic (A complete guide)

A heuristic is a technique that is used for problem-solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method to reach a short-term goal.

The method, or heuristic, used is not guaranteed to be flawless or optimal, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate goal. 

What is a heuristic?

A heuristic is a mental shortcut that enables people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.

These rules-of-thumb shorten decision-making time and enable individuals to function without continuously stopping to consider their next course of action. 

Heuristics are useful in several instances; however, they usually lead to cognitive biases.

A Brief History of Heuristics

It was throughout the Fifties that the Nobel-prize winning scientist Victor Herbert Simon postulated that human judgment is subject to psychological feature limitations.

Strictly rational choices have a lot of disadvantages in terms of the time it takes to get to the solutions.

Factors like overall intelligence and accuracy of perceptions also influence the decision-making method.

During the 1970’s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman revealed that individuals assume and create judgements that can be detrimental to decision-making. 

As a result of these limitations, we tend to be forced to resort to mental shortcuts.

Simon’s analysis that humans were restricted in their ability to form rational choices was complemented by Tversky and Kahneman’s work that introduced the particular ways of thinking that influence the decision-making process.

Why do humans use heuristics?

Humans developed heuristics over several years; since they save energy and time, heuristics seemingly provided advantages to those who used them. 

The familiarity heuristic, for example—in that one thing that is familiar is most popular over unfamiliar objects or people—could be used quickly by early humans to see that foods, people, or locations were safe.

The heuristics that were most helpful to early humans, however, might not be as reliable within the contemporary world, where associating unfamiliar with humans or food doesn’t necessarily create the danger that it once did. 

Heuristics are not unique to humans; animals have discovered some heuristics that, though less advanced, equally serve to shorten decision-making time and cut back psychological feature load.

Psychologists have described many different theories:

Ø  Effort reduction: According to this theory, individuals use heuristics as a sort of psychological feature laziness. Heuristics cut back the mental effort needed to make selections and choices.

Ø  Attribute substitution: Other theories state that individuals substitute simpler but connected ideas as opposed to more advanced and complex ideas.

Ø  Quick and frugal: Still alternative theories argue that heuristics are more correct than they are biased. In other words, we tend to use heuristics because they are quick and often correct.

Heuristics play necessary roles in both problem-solving and decision-making.

When we try to resolve a problem or make a choice, we frequently use these mental shortcuts when we want a fast solution.

The world is filled with data; nonetheless, our brains are only capable of processing a finite amount.

If you tried to research every single facet of each situation or decision, you would never get anything done. 

To address the tremendous quantity of data coming at us at all times, we tend to speed up the decision-making process.

In this way, we do not need to spend endless amounts of time analyzing each detail of a problem or decision.

You probably make several choices daily. What will you have for breakfast? What will you wear today?

Will you drive or take the bus? Will you leave for drinks later together with your co-workers?

Will you use a graph or a table in your presentation?

The list of decisions you make daily is endless.

Luckily, heuristics enable you to form such choices with relative ease.

Heuristics enable you to sort through the potential outcomes quickly and make an informed choice.

For example, once attempting to decide if you will drive or ride the bus to work, you may learn that there is traffic on the route you usually take.

You quickly understand that this might slow the bus and cause you to be late for work, so instead, you just leave a little earlier to drive on an alternate route.

Types of Heuristics

Some common heuristics are the handiness heuristic and the representativeness heuristic.

The availability heuristic involves making choices primarily because it is the first thing that comes to your mind.

While you are trying to decide, you may quickly think of a variety of relevant examples.

Since these are the first things that pop up in your memory, you may choose those instead of ones that come to your mind later.  

For example, if you are deciding whether or not to take a plane somewhere and suddenly you think about a variety of recent airline accidents, you may think flying is too dangerous and choose to drive instead.

The availability heuristic may lead you to assume that plane crashes are more common than they actually are.

The representativeness heuristic involves making a choice by thinking of the most representative example.

If you are trying to decide if somebody is trustworthy, you might compare aspects of this individual to other mental examples you hold of what someone who is trustworthy is like.

A sweet older lady may remind you of your grandmother, therefore you might automatically assume that she is kind, gentle and trustworthy.

If you meet someone for example, who works as a doctor but is also very into yoga, healing and aromatherapy you may assume that she works as a holistic therapist instead of a doctor.

Because her traits and interests match up to your mental epitome of a holistic therapist, the representativeness heuristic causes you to classify her as a holistic therapist instead of what she actually is. 

The affect heuristic involves making decisions that are powerfully influenced by the emotions that you are experiencing at that moment.

As an example, analysis has shown that people are more likely to decide that something has more benefits than risks when they are in a positive mood.

Negative emotions, on the other hand, lead individuals to focus on the potential downsides of a choice instead of the potential advantages.

How Heuristics will cause Bias

While heuristics speed up our decision-making time, they also produce errors.

Simply because one thing has worked within the past does not mean that it will work in a different scenario.

Heuristics may contribute to preconceived notions like stereotypes and prejudice.

As a result of individuals using mental shortcuts to classify and categorize individuals, they typically overlook additional relevant data and make categorizations that are not consistent with reality. 

When Heuristics are Wrong

Heuristics, whereas helpful, are imperfect. Some are seemingly there to steer individuals wrong. 

One typically incorrect heuristic is known as the fundamental attribution error, sometimes known as the attribution result or correspondence bias.

This heuristic describes an inclination to attribute another person’s behavior primarily to internal factors—like personality or character—while attributing their own behavior additional to external or situational factors.

For example, if a person steps on your foot in a crowded elevator, you might attribute it to rudeness or carelessness.

If, on the other hand, you were the one who stepped on another person’s foot, you would assume this happened because the elevator was too crowded, and you couldn’t see the floor. 

The anchoring heuristic is also a heuristic that is likely to be incorrect.

This is when people depend heavily on the primary piece of data learned, even if it is not the most relevant to the matter at hand.  

To avoid making errors by using heuristics, it is a smart idea to use your gut feelings as well as organized thinking when making decisions.

In this article, we discussed what heuristics are, how they are used in everyday life, and some examples of heuristics. 

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about heuristics:

1.    What is a heuristic approach?

A heuristic approach is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery, that is not necessarily optimal or perfect.

It is, however, sufficient for meeting immediate or short-term goals.

2. What are the three types of heuristics?

The three heuristic types have been proposed to be availability, representativeness, and anchoring and adjustment.

Now many more heuristic techniques have been identified. 

3.    What is a heuristic example?

Trial and error is an example of a heuristic technique used in problem solving.

A rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgement, a guesstimate, profiling, or common sense are also all examples of heuristics. 

4.    What is another word for heuristic? 

There are many synonyms for the word heuristic.

These include a heuristic rule, heuristic program, or a commonsense rule. 

5. What problems can be solved by heuristics?

Problems that may cost too much, are unusable in the current environment, or are long-term projects, can be solved by using heuristics.

Relying on heuristics works well as a quick fix or when the alternative solution is impractical. 

6. What is the difference between heuristics and biases?

A heuristic is a rule, strategy, or mental shortcut that people use to derive a solution to a problem.

A heuristic that works all the time is known as an algorithm, but a systematic error that results from the use of a heuristic technique is called a cognitive bias. 

7.    What is the heuristic rule of thumb?

A heuristic rule of thumb is used in situations where an exhaustive search is impractical.

The rule of thumb is used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution.

The terms educated guess, intuitive judgement, and commonsense, are all equivalent terms to heuristics. 

8.    What is an example of a heuristic in psychology?

An educated guess is an example of a heuristic in psychology.

It allows a person to reach a conclusion without exhaustive research.

The availability heuristic allows a person to judge a situation based on previous examples of similar situations that come to mind.

This allows the person to solve a problem based on examples of similar problems that they have solved in the past. 

9.    What is a heuristic in problem solving?

A heuristic is a general way of solving a problem.

It is a method employed to rapidly come to a solution that is hopefully close to the best possible answer.

A rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgement, a guesstimate, profiling, or common sense are also all examples of heuristics.

10.                  How do heuristics affect decision making?

The affect heuristic is a type of mental shortcut where people make decisions that are heavily influenced by their current emotions.

This does not always lead to the best decisions. 

11.                  What is heuristic psychology?

Heuristics in psychology are mental shortcuts that enable people to solve problems and make judgements more quickly and efficiently.

These strategies shorten the time it takes to make decisions and allows people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next move. 

12.                  What are the types of heuristics in psychology?

There are many types of heuristics in psychology, but the main ones are representativeness and availability heuristics.

Want to learn more about heuristics? Try these recommended readings!

Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement 

This book compiles psychologists’ attempts to understand how our biases play a role in judgements.

Biases and Heuristics: The Complete Collection of Cognitive Biases and Heuristics That Impair Decisions in Banking, Finance and Everything Else (The Psychology of Economic Decisions)

This book by Henry Priest will help you understand cognitive biases and how they impair our decision-making abilities.

You will also learn strategies to overcome common biases and heuristics. 


Heuristics and Cognitive Biases. VeryWellMind. January 10th, 2020. 

Heuristics. Psychology Today. 2020. 

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