“Never assume the obvious is true” (William Safire).
What is a heuristic
If you’ve never heard the term, the best way to define it is a brain shortcut.
The most common example is to think of a time when you had to make a decision and you felt like you understood the consequences of the choices laid out in front of you. But didn’t entirely weigh out which is the best choice. So you chose the one that was the most simple and easy to choose.
That is a heuristic. Avoiding the energy the choice would make on your brain to fully decide what is best and you went with what is easiest.
Sometimes this works out well because the simplest solution can sometimes be the best. Yet those other times when it isn’t, a heuristic isn’t the easy way out, it’s avoiding the confrontation of decision making.
Type of heuristic – availability
There are multiple types of heuristics but there are two main heuristics that are the most common forms of incomplete decision making. The two are the availability heuristic and the representative heuristic.
The availability heuristic is utilizing your worldview to make a decision based on how you see it logically. What you are lacking in this decision process is your logic is formed entirely on your experience and no one else’s.
You can witness your own flaw in this process by imagining an experience you have never done and then going out and doing it and comparing what you felt.
For example, being a police officer you might imagine the job is incredibly dangerous because you are dealing with criminals. Yes, this is sometimes true, but just because you become a police officer doesn’t mean every imagined scenario of shootouts and car chases will ever happen to you. Maybe not even once.
Then imagine being a technician for your neighborhoods power and internet lines. You might already know there’s danger involved in that because of the threat of high voltage. But that’s different than being a cop because you aren’t always surrounded by a criminal with a gun that is waiting for an excuse to shoot you.
Of course, I have no experience in either of these, but I initially thought I knew from what I’ve heard and my experience in the world which I would see as more of a threat to me.
Maybe if I took the time to think it through, I would eventually get to the outcome I’ve reached here with powerlines being able to kill me a lot quicker than a criminal who may or may not have a gun to begin with.
However, if I was just answering a quick question, a would you rather type question in some scenario where the answer doesn’t matter all that much, you could see where I might not care enough about my choice.
If the stakes were higher, the choice wasn’t a game and I still decided quickly that I would never want to be a police officer, that’s the availability heuristic. Taking what I think I know and making a decision before I have the ability to make a proper one.
Type of heuristic – representative
With the representative heuristic, this one is similar to the availability heuristic in that it comes with the flawed imagining of what a situation might be like.
The difference is the representative heuristic is more like stereotyping.
You take in your experience with people and when you see someone that reminds you of who you’ve already encountered and met, you believe the encounter to be similar.
To make this more interesting and less offensive, let’s use a dog as an example.
Maybe you’ve met a friendly well behaved, German shepard. Maybe he was even with the cop you imagined in the last example.
Now you see another German shepard and want to go up and pet it. This one though is aggressive, not trained in the way you imagined and you feel unsafe around it.
Because of your previous experience and what you believe you know, you anticipate the interaction to be the same.
This isn’t a bad thing, this is just assuming a situation is going to be similar without taking the time to understand it might not be.
For the most part, maybe in your experience dogs and people you meet and generalize oftentimes do fit into what you believe they will be like. This can only, yet it will only further your way of thinking to believe this will always happen.
The representative heuristic is called that because you have had a representation of the future encounter based on a past encounter and prepare for it to be the same.
The negatives in heuristics
The best way to explain a heuristic is a misrepresentation of bias that comes from you believing you know what will happen.
It’s easier on our brains to think we know what will happen and we prepare for that.
This isn’t bad or uncommon, it’s just how we apply past experiences to future ones, which is understandable.
The key takeaway here is to realize that making a pool of perceptions will never be enough to truly get a situation right always on the first try.
We live to learn and assume what we learn comes in handy as it can be applied to the future. The problem is not understanding the future can throw curveballs at us and thinking we know the right answer can mess us up because we assumed we knew.
Our logic is our logic and it is that way because it is our reality. We just have to understand our reality is our own experience and we haven’t experienced everything there is to know. Even then, knowing a lot won’t guarantee nothing new can come to us.