Heuristics and biases of judgement we are unaware of

Humans are complex beings capable of independent thought and abstract thinking but surprisingly when it comes to everyday life problem solving we tend to rely on simple and efficient rules to reach our decisions or successfully deal with a given problem. These rules allow for fast, almost automatic decisions that save us a fair amount of time and preserve our cognitive resources to deal with other more pressing matters. Psychologists refer to this mechanism as heuristic judgment.

A heuristic is basically a rule of thumb derived out of past experience or rooted in our very nature. A heuristic could by all means be called something between an educated guess or an intuition based judgment. Heuristics are also a very easily applicable means of dealing with incomplete or imprecise information. The use of heuristics however can lead to biased and irrational judgment making.

Judgement heuristics: examples

Heuristics can be evolutionary based or learned. A simple example of a learned heuristic is consumer behaviour during shopping. When we judge a given product the first thing we look at is its price. If the price is low we will almost always judge the product as less attractive than a product with a higher price. Simply put we adhere to the heuristic “the more expensive the Heuristicsbetter”. An example of an evolutionary based heuristic is the “effort heuristic”. This heuristic introduces the notion that the more effort we put in to something the more valuable it seems to us. If you would earn 100$ for a full day of hard work and found 100$ on the street, you would consider the first 100$ bill more valuable than the later one even though both present the same monetary value. This heuristic can be applied to a vast number of situations or problems including judgments even as important as those regarding relationships with other people.

Judgement heuristics: pressure situation

There are many other heuristics that we use every day and usually we do not even notice the fact that we are using them, simply because we are so familiar with them. Although most heuristics produce satisfactory results in a majority of situations, we need to be aware that others can use them against us. Consider the first heuristic involving the price of an object. It is not an uncommon practice to raise the price of something just to make it look more attractive and lure customers in to buying it even though a cheaper product could actually serve the same purpose or even fulfill it more efficiently. To better understand how heuristics can be used against us let us consider the “effort heuristic”. Let us assume that we are in a toxic relationship with someone and we would like to end it. At some point in the discussion your partner will almost always say “but we’ve been through so much already”. In many cases that argument might prove to be very convincing not to end the relationship because we automatically think something along the lines of “well yeah I’ve been with him/her for three years it would be a shame to waste that”. That thought is a product of our mind using the “effort heuristic”. If we would stop to think about what our partner is saying we would reach the conclusion more along the lines of “yeah we’ve been through so much already, that is enough”. But instead we turn to the effort heuristic because we are in a pressure situation that does not allow us to think clearly.

Judgement heuristics: lazy or heuristic?

Another thing worth knowing about heuristics is when we are most prone to use them. One type of situation where heuristic judgment is usually used by humans is a situation where we have limited cognitive resources to deal with a problem and want a fast plausible solution.  On the other hand the other type of situation where we tend to gravitate towards heuristic judgment is a situation where an extensive thought process would simply be impractical.

Because of their very nature heuristics come to us when we need them. For many people making heuristic judgment comes so naturally that they will go as far as to refuse to believe or diminish the value of a non heuristic judgment made by another person. Heuristics can be seen as the easy way out of many situations. One could even go as far as saying that a lazy natured person will apply heuristics to every domain of their life because of their accessibility and applicability.

There are many heuristics that could be discussed in detail and many situations where we will tend to rely on them. The main point however is to know when it is safe to make heuristic judgments and when we need to put the effort in active thinking to save ourselves from committing a fatal error in our judgment. Heuristics are the proper way of dealing with insignificant matters but one needs to realize that some issues cannot be treated as lightly as others.

In conclusion never act on a whim when you are dealing with something important to you or something that might have negative consequences. Stopping to think about something just for a minute instead of acting on impulse might save your wallet or prevent you from getting in serious trouble.  

Judgement heuristics: videos

What Are Heuristics?


Cognitive Bias and Pattern Seeking