Heuristics: what are they and how can they benefit me?

Our brains try to make everything easier for us. They frequently remember things that shock us and ditch information that bores us, which sounds great but is not always beneficial, as I am sure you have experienced at some point.

One way our brains attempt to simplify our thought processes is using a set of ‘rules’ called heuristics.

Heuristics are usually referred to as ‘mental shortcuts’ because they are basically algorithms in our brains that speed up the decision-making process, usually by sorting information by relevance.

So, what are some examples of heuristics?

Representative heuristic is when someone picks the information that best suits their current perception of the topic. For example, a FinTech business looking at the results of a consumer survey might overemphasise a statistic showing that bitcoin is most popular, and ignore the statistic showing that, actually, it is just the most well-known.

Affect heuristic is when information causes an emotional response, which then influences the outcome. An example of this heuristic is when we see a charity advert, which makes us feel horrified and sympathetic, and therefore more likely to donate.

Availability heuristic is the assumption that information most easily recalled is, therefore, the most common answer. For example, a media agency that frequently interacts with influencers might think that all millennials are obsessed with their phones and love avocado on toast.

Anchoring heuristic is the tendency to pay more attention to the information received first, and perceive it as more reliable. For example, the HR director of a company looking to hire a freelancer might view those at the top of the list more favourably than those further down.

Satisficing is choosing the first information that satisfies the needs of the test, even if there are other options that are better suited. An example of this would be that same HR director skimming through the list for the first freelancer whose most recent client was in the same industry as their company.

Obviously, heuristics are extremely useful – otherwise, every tiny decision would take us much, much longer. That said, for the scenarios in my examples, the heuristics also present some drawbacks, not least a reduction in creativity or outside-the-box thinking.

So, how can I use heuristics to my advantage?

That firstly depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you are a marketer, for example, you want to tap into people’s heuristics, but if you are, say, a house-hunter, you want to try to overcome them.

Harness heuristics

Display information in ways that heuristics dictate that it will be most memorable. To tap into the anchoring heuristic, place the most important information first. To tap into the affect heuristic, use stories to provoke an emotional response. If you want to harness satisficing, use specific words that your target audience might be scanning for. To use the availability heuristic to your advantage, make sure your social ads are out there!

Even if you are a consumer, heuristics can still be helpful. If you are trying to decide from a huge list of products, being able to skim a list to find the perfect colour or design will speed up the process! Heuristics allow us to pick and choose our decision-making battles. If you want to carefully consider a list of applicants after lunch, let heuristics take over choosing what you will eat, so you have more brain-power left for the important decisions.

Reduce cognitive bias

By being aware of heuristics, you can start to reduce their negative impacts. Read the information carefully and consider it objectively. Have an open mind when choosing from a list, and take your time! Slowing down is the most important thing because heuristics are there to speed up the decision making process.

Consider every decision with the following questions: is it rational? Does it fit? Is there a better option? Is there other information that contradicts it? Is the accuracy of this decision important (to what extent can I let heuristics take over)?

Whatever your aims, there are ways you can use heuristics to your advantage, and the first step is simply to understand them!

For anybody interested in learning more about heuristics, or the way we think in general, I highly recommend this book: Thinking Fast and Slow.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” 

Daniel Kahneman, author of ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’

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