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 Obesity13(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.


7 thoughts on “Heuristics

  1. Thanks for the post AJ!
    This made me want to look a little more into heuristics and how they effect us in social situations. One that I found really interesting is the Familiarity Heuristic. This is the tendency for humans to go with what they know in new situations. This is especially true if they are under a high cognitive load (meaning they are already putting a lot of “brain energy” into what they are doing). The tendency to do what we have done before may seem good as we will be able to predict the outcomes. Unfortunately this heuristic leads to no new ideas or outcomes being discovered. Beyond this, no situation is exactly the same and so the heuristic fails to properly predict what the outcome will be based solely on past decisions.

    Park, C. Whan; Lessig, V. Parker (1981). “Familiarity and its impact on consumer decision biases and heuristics”. Journal of Consumer Research. 8 (2): 223–230. doi:10.1086/208859.


  2. I found this blog very informative. As you mentioned, we use these and many other heuristics everyday, but we often have no idea we are using them. I went looking for more heuristics, and found the naive diversification heuristic. After reading about this heuristic more in depth, I realized that I use this heuristic all the time.

    This heuristic has also been called the diversification bias. The naive diversification heuristic or diversification bias is how people will elect to have more variety when presented with the option to decide for the future. More specifically, the study completed by Read and Loewenstein (1995) discusses how people who choose a variety of snacks for future consumption, will opt for less variety if given the choice later on. This is due to time contraction and choice bracketing. Time contraction is where the amount of time between consumption of separate choices is overestimated. The idea behind choosing more variety is that participants think the time in between snacks is shorter than it is, and are worried about satiation. Choice bracketing is when multiple choices are presented all at once and are evaluated against one another, whereas, choices presented separately are evaluated individually.
    This heuristic is very cool, and works without our knowledge. I can recall many times where I have fallen victim to this heuristic.

    Read D., & Loewenstein G. (1995). Diversification bias: Explaining the discrepancy in variety seeking between combined and separated choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1, 34-49.


    • I loved reading about this heuristic! The more I know, the more I can use to contribute with substantiated evidence in future talks and blogs! I;ll admit, I didn’t quite understand what this heuristic was all about just by your comment alone, so I went digging for an explanation that made sense to Anthony. Using the article you provided, I read up on it, and came up with my own example. I work at Walmart, and so whenever I think about social cognition and social behaviour, I look out for it in one of the most consumer based super-centers in the world. When big families go shopping, they use large carts and fill them up with a variety of items. These items range from food to toiletries, to pet supplies, to home and garden products… the list goes on. In any case, the trip is partaken in order to satiate the members of the family unit until the next time they go shopping, so they are more likely to get groups of diverse bundles. It is university students, however, who fall into the diversification heuristic all too easily. I am even worse for it because I live at Walmart, so I am constantly buying items one or two at a time. When I sit down to plan my grocery list, I am able to come up with a pointed, intelligent list of supplies and ingredients to make healthy, well-balanced meals for the week. When I go shopping without a list, I use only a limited memory of what was vaguely good the last time, and grab those same items. I will be far less likely to try something new, or buy ingredients to make a fancy dinner, and will go straight for my potato salad, pepperoni bites, carrots (even if I have two other packages at home) and babybell cheeses.

      This heuristic is so cool, and so personal, I am tempted to re-title it “The Anthony binge shopping heuristic” but that’s not appropriate.

      For anyone reading my blog who likes what they read here and is interested in content that is similar, but thought of in a completely different and intelligent way, please make your way over to Diane’s blog. She talks a lot about implicit cognition, and it was the priming of reading her blog that made me want to write on implicit decision making myself.

      Read D., & Loewenstein G. (1995). Diversification bias: Explaining the discrepancy in variety seeking between combined and separated choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1, 34-49.


  3. Very informative, and interesting stuff! It is very cool hearing about each of the heuristics and being able to relate to a time when either yourself, or someone you know has very clearly performed one of the rituals mentioned above. What I remain somewhat skeptical of, however, is the idea that there’s anything we can do about such heuristics. Mind you I am biased, as a fan of evolutionary psychology in general, however I have gathered some resources that one might find interesting.

    When it comes to an individuals tendency to commit fallacious heuristic based reasoning, there is actually an inventory that can be used to quantify it. It is called the “Cognitive Reflection Test” (CRT) and is a questionnaire that has been demonstrated to be a better predictor of peoples tendencies to think via heuristics than either cognitive ability or thinking disposition alone (Toplak, West & Stanovich, 2011).

    While there is a general consensus that there is a strong correlation between ones CRT score and their cognitive capacity, researchers have concluded that not all of the variation in performance can be attributed to IQ. But nonetheless, such a strong correlation is suspect of some degree of causality between the two. And as we know many facets of cognition show great degrees of heritability as the individuals age into adulthood (wright et al., 2001).

    So in sum, while one should try to approach issues with an open mind and refrain from knee jerk cognitive tendencies that might not be factually correct, it might not be possible to fully incorporate such a mentality all the time, as such temperaments are suspect of inheritable characteristics.

    Wright, M., Geus, E. D., Ando, J., Luciano, M., Posthuma, D., Ono, Y., . . . Boomsma, D. (2001). Genetics of Cognition: Outline of a Collaborative Twin Study. Twin Research, 4(01), 48-56. doi:10.1375/twin.4.1.48
    Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (2011). The Cognitive Reflection Test as a predictor of performance on heuristics-and-biases tasks. Memory & Cognition, 39(7), 1275-1289. doi:10.3758/s13421-011-0104-1


  4. Hey Anthony!
    Thanks for another super-interesting post. Heuristics are something that I think about a lot during my daily life, especially because so many of the judgements that we make are time-sensitive, potentially leading us into relying on snapshot judgements i.e. heuristics to make important decisions. I think that reliance on “common sense” can be problematic as well, for this reason. Common sense is particularly problematic, because it contains all of the properties of a heuristic, making it easily accessible and loosely applicable, but very prone to error. Although some sources outright refer to common sense as being a heuristic, very few make a point of mentioning it. I think that this lack of awareness is particularly problematic, especially because jurors and judges may fall victim to this heuristic, potentially resulting in others becoming victims of their faulty judgement.

    Research has shown that jurors are particularly influenced by their “common sense” when it comes to making judicial decisions. :



    • [NM] Oh for sure! I think jurors definitely get caught up in heuristics, but then again, we all do. I think the most important thing for authority figures when making decisions is that any decisions made by the authority figure using heuristics is a decision that was not made with a great deal of thought or concentration. To avoid having heuristics influence a decision that could be come biased, it is wise to have many eyes looking at one issue to lower the chance that the whole group will feed into a biased heuristic. If a judge, a senator, or um.. the freaking president were to make decisions simply off of heuristics alone, which as you mentioned in your blog is something Donald Trump does often when you discussed framing, the legitimacy of anything they say should be called into question simply because they don’t even care enough to use controlled thought processing.

      By the way, for anyone commenting on my blog looking for neat blogs to check out, Micha’s is pretty sweet. He has a neat perspective on social cognition.


  5. The availability heuristic reminds me of the affordance concept in decision making. Basically, when we practice s simple movement as picking up the phone, the brain process multiple methods all at a time. This is the affordance and we need to pick one and put into action. Because if the heuristic is a mental short cut, this shortcut might come from one of our decisions and we just picked the preferred one. Heuristics may help us understand how this process works. For example, in order to solve the fear and stress against one traumatic event, what kind of coping method we are intending to use.
    Cisek, P., & Kalaska, J. F. (2010). Neural mechanisms for interacting with a world full of action choices. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 33(1), 269-298. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.051508.135409


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