The Heuristics Trap

Library shelves full of old books
Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

We like to think we act rationally and make objective decisions.  Unfortunately, many times we don’t.

How else can you explain this data?  Our diets are terrible, causing more than 1000 deaths a day.  If we reduced our intake of processed meat and refined grains, we could sharply lessen this number.  A change in diet and exercise would have prevented some of the 100 million Americans from getting diabetes and mitigated the risk of cardiovascular disease in another 122 million.

Currently, we are being confronted with many challenging decisions like dealing with unemployment, coping with a volatile stock market and keeping ourselves safe from the Covid-19 virus.

How can we be sure we make sound intelligent decisions on these critical issues?  First, we need to be aware of the heuristics trap.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that permit us to make quick and efficient judgments. We’re confronted daily with a mountain of data. We often don’t have the time — or want to make the effort — to crunch that data and make a rational, evidence-based decision. That’s why we resort to shortcuts.

Many people will engage in heuristics rather than take the time to really think through complex issues. That’s the appeal of many “solutions” commonly offered in self-help books.  They provide simplistic advice that’s quick and easy to implement, like “visualizing” your goal.  The problem is there’s little scientific support for the notion that simply visualizing a goal makes it more likely you will achieve it.

Heuristics pros and cons

Heuristics aren’t always bad. Some decisions don’t merit a comprehensive analysis, like which movie you should see. Heuristics are more problematic when they lead to poor decisions based on inadequate information.

Difficult issues, like the ones we are all facing today, don’t lend themselves to heuristics.  They require serious thought and analysis.

Consider the question of when we should open the economy.  Many issues need to be evaluated, like the risk of death if more contact leads to more infections and the collateral damage to the economy by prolonging the shutdown.  Additional considerations include the adverse mental health consequences of staying sequestered, including a potential increase in suicide, depression and domestic violence.

There isn’t an easy answer applicable to everyone. 

Once you realize the appeal of heuristics, you’ll be well-equipped to overcome the temptation to take shortcuts when an issue requires you to really think through it.