A heuristic is a mental shortcut used by humans when attempting to make a decision or a judgment as one may not have the needed time to think things through in a certain situation. This mental shortcut can be seen as involving cognitive stereotypes or past experiences that influence one’s present or future thoughts. Heuristics are acquired habits that might lead one to either make faulty decisions or successful ones. As human beings we opt for different kinds of heuristics, which include the following: representativeness heuristic, availability heuristic, simulation heuristic and anchoring and adjustment heuristic. The aim of this paper is to shed light on this psychological concept by dwelling on its different types and to provide examples for each type.
The representativeness heuristic is the judgment heuristic; it is the heuristic a human relies on when trying to judge a person, a phenomenon or an event based on an existing pattern in one’s mind. An example of that would be:
Tom’s friend told him that he had acquired a lot of money after gambling in a club and recommended that Tom give it a try sometime soon. Tom, convinced that he would be destined to the same outcome as his friend, takes the decision to make it to the club and gamble. He decides to venture with all the money in his possession but ends up losing all the amount.
What happened in this specific situation was that Tom depended on his friend’s experience which suggested the high probability of winning money; a suggestion that is far from being true primarily because when gambling, there always exists a 50/50 chance of winning. An equation Tom had ignored because he developed the judgment based on a similar experience and therefore bid all his money without thinking it through.
Availability heuristic involves the instantaneous thoughts that come to one’s mind when trying to make a decision. An example of that type would be:
A man spending his vacation on a beach in Sharm el Sheikh has extensively read about recent shark attacks that have left many dead at the Red Sea. This information incited the man to reject his son’s request to swim thinking that such act carried within it an inescapable danger-namely that of being attacked by a shark.
What unfolded in this specific situation was that despite the fact that a shark attack was never recorded on a beach in Sharm el Sheikh, the man was still concerned about the simple act of swimming and automatically related a certain piece of news to a certain situation based on the availability heuristic.
Simulation heuristic is the heuristic that makes use of imagination and scenarios one already has in mind. An example of that would be:
If we were to ask people if it would be better to miss a train by 5 minutes or 30 minutes, most would respond asserting that they would rather miss it by 5 minutes. However if one were to think about it thoroughly, it does not really matter whether one has missed the train by 5 minutes or more because either way the outcome remains unaltered: the train has departed. However, one would choose the 5 minutes answer because one creates a specific scenario in mind where one would imagine what it would be like to barely miss the train and run after it exerting all possible effort to catch the train.
The anchoring and adjustment heuristic is when people place a definite number or an estimate value for something then adjust to it. An example of that type would be:
Frank has planned to purchase a brand new car in a year’s time as he is aware that he would be ready to pay for its market value then. However, as he is on his way to work on a normal day, he notices that the car he aspires to purchase is on sale. He therefore alters all previously made plans and decides to buy the car at once even if such sudden alteration would mean that the car’s price would be more expensive if he opts to buy it now instead of waiting till next year. Here, it’s the sale sign that grabbed his attention and convinced him to change the already set plan the he had orchestrated before.
In conclusion, heuristics can be regarded as mental shortcuts which humans make use of on a daily basis; sometimes without even noticing so. This is precisely why psychologists affirm that heuristics are subconscious habits. That said, a mature human being would watch out for them and try to avoid total reliance on heuristics or mental shortcuts when making decisions.