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Heuristics: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Whether you know it or not, heuristics are a part of your daily life. While a cognitive psychologist named Herbert Simon named the concept in the 1950s, the human process of heuristics have been around much longer than that. By definition, a heuristic is a quick judgment that a person makes based off of prior knowledge, experience, and biases. We use heuristics to make decisions about our environment, situations, and safety all the time. Consider it a rule of thumb. A rule of thumb gives you a point of reference to judge a particular event, which can change as you learn more about the situation.


There are multiple categories in which to classify different heuristics. One example is the availability heuristic. If someone asks a person at a beach about possible dangerous situations they could encounter, they may respond by saying that they could be bitten by a shark. While being bitten by a shark is rare, they most likely responded in this way because the idea was more easily accessible to their mind because of their environment.


There are multiple reasons why heuristics are useful and helpful. For example, heuristics provide us with quick answers that we rely on based off of past experience. Instead of having to process situations over and over again as if they were new, our brains use a heuristic to categorize a new event. In a way, heuristics allow our brains to work smarter and not harder. Heuristics often take difficult concepts and make them easy for us to understand, limiting the effort our brains have to use within certain circumstances. Heuristics often hold some truth about what is going on, which means they can be reliable in certain contexts. Your mind’s ability to form heuristics is also used as a way to make sense of what is going on around you. If your brain can interpret what is going on and determine that you are safe, your brain will tell your body how to react.


As with any other concept, there are also negative consequences to using heuristics. Heuristics rely on our own personal experience to form judgments about others and situations. Because we cannot know every possible outcome from experience alone, we can misrepresent the event in our mind. Once we judge a situation, our brains often take this interpretation as fact. It can be difficult to change our mind without introducing new information to change our beliefs and heuristics. While heuristics intend to help us, we can jump to conclusions about people and their attitudes, intentions, and character based on our heuristics. When this happens, we encourage stereotypes and biases about certain groups of people that are different than us.


So how do we encourage healthy heuristics and uncover any biases that we may have? A good way to start is recognizing when you use a heuristic in your everyday life. Did you realize that you judged a situation without learning more information about it? You may have used a heuristic to come to that conclusion! While this takes practice, increasing your self-awareness will assist you in noticing the use of heuristics. Another way to encourage healthy heuristics is to learn more information about people and events that you are not familiar with. Having an open mind to learning about others and their culture will broaden your understanding and knowledge of new experiences. While this process takes effort, expanding your awareness of other cultures will allow your experience to grow and change, which can encourage your heuristics to grow and change with you. While it is impossible to eliminate our use of heuristics, we can recognize how heuristics can help, and potentially harm, our everyday experience.


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