I am writing my blog post this week selfishly because I have been hearing the word heuristics thrown around in class, and I had only a vague idea of what a heuristic was. The purpose of this blog post is to help out other students in Social Cognition , who may have fallen asleep in Social Psychology the way I did. Heuristics are important concepts in social cognition because they contribute to a better understanding of automatic thought processing and implicit social cognition . By the end of this blog post, you will be able to identify what a heuristic is, and have the base knowledge of four different heuristics that influence your life and decision making without even knowing it.
A heuristic is a mental shortcut that is taken when information is processed. Because of all of the stimulus that is absorbed on any given day, the brain has come up with some clever tools, or shortcuts, to alleviate the need to waste mental effort. We are neurologically hardwired to rely predominantly on heuristics when making choices. (Duff & Peace, 2013)
Although there are many heuristics that have been discovered, four of the most popular heuristics are discussed below:
- Availability Heuristic: This heuristic is used to estimate the likelihood of an occurrence based on how easily one can remember an example of that occurrence. The availability heuristic is often used to protect ourselves. The availability heuristic was used after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Although airplane travel is far safer than travel by automobile, air travel declined all over the world after the tragic event and individuals chose to drive instead, which would put them in greater risk.
Once you learn about the availability heuristic, it is quite easy to manipulate someone’s cognitive processes to make them do what you want them to. If, for example, your friend was debating whether they wanted to party or not, and you didn’t want to, by reminding your friend of all the worst times they had while partying, the friend will be less likely to want to go out. (Duff & Peace, 2013)
- Representativeness Heuristic: The representativeness heuristic (RH from now on) is used to judge whether a person or thing is a part of a certain category. This heuristic is problematic, because we can jump to conclusions of who a person is based on what categories we place them in. An example of the RH in action was done by Lonsdale & North, and centered on using a person’s musical taste as a complete judgement in character. In both studies they performed, there was overwhelming evidence that people had no problem making snap decisions about who someone was depending on the music they listen to. (Lonsdale & North, 2011)
- Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic: The Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic (AAH) is a heuristic used for estimation. For the anchoring part, we state an answer that we know is wrong, but close. This is our anchor. From there, we guess lower or higher for the “actual answer”. The AAH is a bad heuristic to feed into because we completely throw our high functioning cognitive skills out the window in favour of a guess.
The AAH is taken advantage of by creators of shows such as Price is Right. On the show, the contestant is presented with an item and asked to guess the approximate value of it. Closest contestant to the true value wins that round. If we were to guess the approximate price of a boat on the show, we might know the approximate price of a house, and the approximate price of a car. The price of the boat would be somewhere in between this number, leaving much room for error. (Epley & Gilovich, 2006)
- Framing Heuristic: Framing is a heuristic in which an individual will make different decisions depending on the way the situation presents itself. It is a tool most often used in advertising. When a situation is framed positively, we are more likely to buy into it than if it is framed negatively. If I’m on a diet, I want to read “sixty percent less sodium” not “still contains 30% of your daily intake of salt.” We make this heuristic to feel better about ourselves, or better about situations. When surgeons want to try an experimental surgery, they’re more likely to tell you “this surgery will provide a sixty percent chance in recovery” instead of saying “there is a forty percent chance that following through with this medical procedure could lead to your death.”(Rybash & Rubin,1989) (Cohen & Babey, 2012)
How can you stop feeding into heuristics?
The only way to prevent heuristics and autonomic decision making is to cognitively intervene. When faced with a situation in which the past could influence your decision, a situation in which one aspect of an individual leads you to label them, a situation in which you estimate a value by first starting with a false but close guess, or a situation in which you are going to make a decision based on the framing of the situation, the answer is to take a step back and evaluate. What actually makes sense here? Is the man I’m talking to actually a dumb hick because he listens to country music? Probably not. Is the ice cream I’m picking up really healthy if it is labeled “frozen yogurt”? Probably not. Am I going to die if I choose to drive after I hear that my roommate has been in a car accident? Probably not. The biggest advice I can offer to eliminate erratic judgments and heuristics is to simply use your brain.
Cohen, D. A., & Babey, S. H. (2012). Contextual Influences on Eating Behaviors: Heuristic Processing and Dietary Choices. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 13(9), 766–779.
Duff, K.J. & Peace, K. (2013) THINK Psychology, First Canadain Edition. Halifax, Nova Scotia. Pearson Education Canada.
Epley, N. & Gilovich, T. (2006) The Anchoring and Adjusting Heuristic: Why the Adjustments Are Insignificant. Psychological Science, 17(4), 311-318.
Lonsdale, A.J. & North, A.C. (2011) Musical Taste and the Representativeness Heuristic. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 131-142.
Rybash, J.M. & Roodin, P.A. (1989) The Framing Heuristic Influences Judgements about Younger and Older Adults’ Decision to Refuse Medical Treatment. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 3 (2), 171-180.