Heuristics – the amazing mental shortcuts that lead us into trouble
“A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgements quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about the next course of action.”
We all use heuristics. We have to. The alternative would be ‘paralysis by analysis’. We’d be too busy thinking through our every action actually to do anything. From a smile or a handshake to how to cross the road or even boil a kettle. Without heuristics life would be exhausting and probably very short. After all – by the time you’d thought through how to respond to the speeding car hurtling toward you, you’d probably be dead. Heuristics are the psychological shortcuts that keep us going in a complex world.
Some of our heuristics are learned. That’s why experts are so good at what they do. Years of experience has taught them the heuristics of their work.
In my own field for example, I remember as a novice psychiatric nurse spending hour upon hour wondering how to approach each individual, trying to be aware of their every characteristic as though all that information, somehow would tell me what to do. With experience I learned that not every piece of information is important in every situation. I can ‘cut out the irrelevant’ and take appropriate action based upon only the important things. In a very real sense the study of ‘heuristics’ is the study of ‘the relevant’.
So I know that depressed people need motivation; I know that anxious people need a way to problem solve; and I know that psychotic people need a way to assess their perceptions and beliefs. These are the shortcuts, the heuristics that allow me to be effective. But they’re not foolproof.
In choosing to ignore irrelevant information and act according to pre-conceived patterns of need psychiatric nurses run the very real risk of ignoring ‘the individual behind the distress’. By focussing only upon the depression and working to motivate a service-user I might fail to notice their suicidal ideation. That would be a serious omission and working too hard on motivation without addressing the underlying desire to die could result in the person actually killing themselves rather than just thinking about it.
Of course experienced nurses know this and work hard not to limit their attention only to motivation without understanding what might come next but the point is clear. Mental shortcuts are useful but they are also, by definition, superficial. They make us prone to mistakes.
The good news is that we can learn to take account of these pitfalls. The bad news is that most of the time heuristics just take hold of us and we carry on in our own sweet, superficial way because that’s what we evolved to do.
Like all evolved tendencies, heuristics favoured survival of the fittest in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA). They are so embedded in our evolutionary journey that they are a universal trait among humans. We act without thinking. That’s what kept our ancestors alive. It’s also what keeps us alive today. Whether the threat was a predatory tiger in the Pleistocene or a speeding car in the present we act instantly to keep ourselves safe. Natural selection kept the gene pool viable and the evolution of heuristics was assured.
2. Fear of falling.
Everything else has to be learned. The more effective the heuristic shortcut the more likely it is that we confuse the lesson with instinct. But it’s not instinct. The tendency to develop learned heuristics is an evolutionary trait but often the heuristics themselves are the products of experience and of culture. They develop as we learn from experience and, as we have seen, they can lead us astray.
In a sense, evolutionary psychology might be thought of as the study of heuristics. It’s the study of those ingrained mental shortcuts that mould our basic drives even (although not necessarily our specific behaviours). Protection of children, for example or a general commitment to justice (at least justice so far as other people are concerned) seem more hard wired than a healthy respect for road safety. That’s because although the need to survive is hard wired the rules governing traffic have to be learned.
As already noted, one of the aims of this blog series is to understand the role of determinism in our evolutionary make up. I suspect that if we are to embrace free will (the opposite of determinism) in any meaningful way then attention to heuristics will be the way forward.