What is heuristic?

Human beings process chunks of external information and make countless choices within a finite amount of time.

But when the information is missing and taking an urgent decision is absolutely necessary, heuristics play a role as the famous ‘rules of thumb’. This ensures you make good-enough choices within a limited time frame.

Heuristics are not a quality unique to humans. Animals use heuristics, too, and even though they are comparatively less complex, they serve the purpose of simplifying the process of making decisions.

Animals or humans, heuristics help reduce an overload of thought processes and patterns of overanalyzing or overthinking. The meaning of heuristic is simple—it is the fast-tracking of the day-to-day thought processes.

What is the meaning of heuristic thinking

A heuristic is like a ‘mental shortcut’ which allows an individual to make a decision, form a judgment, or resolve an issue fast with the least amount of mental effort. While heuristics can indeed reduce the weightage of making decisions and free up an individual’s limited mental and behavioral resources, there is always a cost—they can lead individuals to lose out on crucial information or act on unruly biases.

The meaning of the heuristic method lies in the approach for acquiring a solution to an issue. The term originates from the ancient Greek word ‘eurisko, which means to ‘discover’, ‘search,’ or ‘find’. It promotes utilizing a practical method that does not necessarily need to be perfect. These methods speed up the process of finding a holistic and satisfactory solution. Past experiences of the individual or collective consciousness are used with comparable problems that can resolve problematic situations.

Heuristic thinking plays an important role in both decision-making and problem-solving. When an individual tries to solve a problem or make a decision, they often resort to these ‘mental shortcuts’ when a quick solution is needed. Psychologists and behaviorists have, over the years, provided different theories on why people rely on heuristics.

1. Attribute substitution: 

Some theories suggest that people usually substitute simpler but related questions rather than taking on more complex and difficult ones.

2. Reducing the efforts: 

According to the effort reduction theory, people practice heuristics as a kind of ‘laziness in thought processing’. Heuristics ultimately reduce the psychological effort required to make effective choices and decisions

3. Speed: 

Taking the various examples of heuristics into consideration, one theory is heuristics are actually more accurate than they are prejudiced. This means we utilize heuristics because they are fast in nature and are correct more often than not.

The external world is filled with information, yet the human brain is only capable of processing a limited amount of it. If an individual tried to analyze and factorize every single element of every possible condition while making a decision, they would hardly get anything done.

How Heuristic Thinking Helps in Reasoning Logically?

Now that the meaning of heuristic is clear, it is essential to understand how to use it. By understanding the heuristic approach and these unconscious thought practices of the brain, one can beat themselves at their own game.

What is a heuristic approach?

One of the founders of heuristics was the Hungarian mathematician György Pólya, who wrote a book called How to Solve It’ on the subject in 1945. He used the following four principles that form the basis for problem-solving.

1. The first principle of the Heuristic method—understanding the issue 

This step is a little more difficult than it seems because it seems rather obvious. Truth be told, people are at a loss when it comes to finding a well-suited approach to the issue. It can help to jot the issue down and try to look at it from multiple angles. What exactly is the issue, what is happening around it, can it be better explained, expressed in other words, is there sufficient information available—questions such as these can help with the first oversight of the evaluation of an issue.

2. The second principle of the Heuristic method—making a plan/ forming a strategy 

There are countless ways to solve an issue. This step is about choosing a strategy that best fits the problem at hand. One method that might work with this step is to ‘work backward’. This means that people assume to have an answer and begin there as a starting point to tackle the issue. It can also be helpful to make an informed collection of suitable possibilities, discard some of them immediately, and work on the rest. Creativity in problem-solving comes into play here and will improve your ability to judge a strategy fairly.

3. The third principle of the Heuristic method—carrying out the plan

Once a plan or strategy has been chosen, it can be quickly and effectively implemented. It is, however, imperative to pay due attention to the time and be patient, because an answer will not just magically appear. If a strategy proves ineffective, scrap it entirely and start looking for a new way.

4. The fourth principle of the Heuristic method—evaluation and adaptation

One should take the time to consider and reflect upon the work already done with immense care. Analyze the factors that are playing out properly, in order. . The ones leading to a less optimal solution should be adjusted. Sometimes, some parts work, while others simply do not.

Examples of heuristics

An educated guess is a heuristic method that allows an individual to reach a conclusion without undertaking exhaustive research about an issue. With an educated guess, the person takes into account what they have observed or experienced in the past, and applies these historical patterns to a situation where a more concrete answer is yet to be found.

Common sense is a heuristic process that is utilized while dealing with a problem based on an individual’s observation of a problematic situation. This practical and important approach is applied to a decision where the right and wrong answers seem relatively straightforward.

Consistency heuristic is one where an individual responds to a situation in a way that the answer allows them to remain consistent with their past behavior.

Absurdity heuristic is an approach to a problem that is extremely both atypical and unlikely. In other words, this particular type of heuristic is used when a claim or a belief seems rather silly or lacking in common sense.

The Contagion heuristic causes a person to completely avoid something that is thought to be bad or adulterated or polluted. For example, when a model of mobile phone is recalled due to some kind of heating or battery issues, someone might use this simple answer and decide to stay away from mobile phones altogether.

The Availability heuristic will allow a person to judge a problem on the basis of the examples of similar problems that come to their mind. This would allow the person to relate easily to the situation that they might find themselves in.

Working backward means a person solves a problem by imagining they have already solved it. By working backward, i.e. from the answer to the question in their minds, they can map out how such an answer might have been conceived.

The Familiarity heuristic allows a person to confront an issue or problem based on the fact that the situation is familiar to them. And so, the person should take action in the same way they had acted in the same situation in the past.

The Scarcity heuristic is used only when the particular desired object or resource becomes rare or scarce. This approach suggests that if something is lower in number or availability, it becomes more desirable to procure.

The famous Rule of thumb example of heuristics is applied to a wide approach to problem-solving. It is a simple heuristic process that an individual uses to make an appropriate guess, without undertaking exhaustive research.

Affect heuristic is when an individual makes a rash judgment based on a short-lived impression. This heuristic overviews a problem quickly and decides, with no further research, whether a situation or resource or object is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This heuristic can hurt you if applied in the wrong situation.

The Authority heuristic occurs when someone believes the judgment of a person of authority on the subject, just because the concerned individual is an authority figure. People apply this heuristic almost all the time,  especially in matters such as politics, technology, science, health, and education.

The aforementioned examples of heuristics will help you understand the difference between them clearly and be more aware of when you are using one.

Harappa Education offers a course called Reasoning Logically that helps you think critically and put you on course to understanding heuristic thinking.


Explore our Harappa Diaries section to know more about topics related to the Think habit such as Learning From Experience, What is Critical Thinking, Meaning of an Argument, Creative Thinking & Design Thinking.

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