Heuristics and Critical Thinking

We looked at what Heuristics are in a previous post. In this post, we look briefly at some basic types. To get an even better understanding of the relationships between heuristics and biases, look at the article on Visual Decision making (scroll down to biases).

Being aware of the basic types of Heuristics is essential. Many people are not aware of the kinds of mental shortcuts we make in our thinking, which will lead to errors in judgment. Awareness of this makes us better problem solvers and decision-makers.

We make thousands of decisions every day. Many are automatic or reactive. Some lead to poor choices, but others are important and useful. For example, veteran pilots fly planes with ease and use complicated instruments safely. These pilots have automated and internalized a series of complex thinking processes. They make quick and effective decisions with little effort.

In comparison, novice pilots find these processes mentally exhausting because they have not developed expert intuition (heuristics). In the pilot situation, creating automatic decision making is essential. Still, when we are dealing with unique, unknown problems (like the design of a new plane), we need to be able to make deliberate decisions and be reflective in our thinking. Using heuristics, therefore, would be a disaster. Even smart people can make dumb decisions.

There are four basic types of Heuristics (there are many more):

  • Representativeness;
  • Availability;
  • Recognition;
  • Base-rate.

Representativeness Heuristic

With this Heuristic, we rely on past experiences to guide the decision-making process in unfamiliar situations. We compare information to a mental prototype. For example, suppose we are told that an old lady is kind and likes to play with children. In that case, we automatically assume she is a grandmother.

We do this because of the mental representation we have of grandmothers. This Heuristic is essentially a stereotype. We make snap judgments that X is like Y in every way by merely noticing that X is like Y in some way only.

The error we make is that the analogy might not hold if considered more carefully.

Availability Heuristic

This mental shortcut helps us estimate the likelihood of a future event on the vividness or ease of recalling a similar past event. We look for examples and apply them to current situations. For instance, if you read in the paper that a plane has crashed, you might judge that planes crashing is more frequent or probable than in reality and decide never to fly again.

This Heuristic can be useful and accurate. If you see a massive object hanging from a building over the sidewalk, for example, you wisely avoid walking under it. It makes us careful in dangerous situations. 

The possible error: Mistaking estimations of the chances of events turning out in the future as they are remembered to have turned out in the past.

Recognition Heuristic

We choose among a set of alternatives by placing a higher value on the option that is recognized.
For example, when selecting clothing, we might choose a known brand versus an unknown brand and even pay more, even if the quality is inferior.

Base-rate Heuristic

This shortcut is based on probability. If we hear an animal growling in a city or suburb, the assumption is that the animal is a dog; but if we were in a remote forest at night and hear howling, we will most probably assume it is a wolf. A wolf howling in the city is highly improbable.

The error we make with this Heuristic is when we ignore statistical information. We do this in favor of using irrelevant information that we might incorrectly believe to be relevant to make a decision. This happens due to the irrational belief that statistics do not apply to a particular situation.

For example, a particular college only accepts 5% of applications, but my daughter is brilliant; therefore, the University is going to accept her application. The problem is that statistically, the daughter may still have a low chance of being accepted. The University is for brilliant students, everyone knows this, so the majority of applicants will be brilliant.

Of the total application population who apply, only 5% get accepted; even if the daughter is brilliant, she still only has a 5% chance of being accepted (low).

Test your knowledge

Decide from the above heuristics which one most people would use to make the following decision.

Is Monica more likely to be a librarian or a nurse?

Which Heuristic would most people use to answer this question?

Monica enjoys playing chess. She wears reading glasses, twists her hair in a bun, listens to classical music, and enjoys going to bookshops and museums in her spare time.

By looking at the main types of heuristics (see others here – scroll down the page), we should be aware of how we sometimes think and not repeatedly make the same mistakes. If we do, we can correct ourselves and take a little more time to be more critical of the facts that face us. 

Heuristics have no place when dealing with unfamiliar situations, processing abstract concepts, planning, design, research, and dealing with social issues.

We might not know how to be critical thinkers, but it does not mean that we should not try. The good news is that using a visual problem-solving tool like SenseCatcher, critical thinking kicks in naturally.