What Is Heuristics Psychology?

Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In the 1950s, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Herbert Simon, found that even though human beings want to make rational decisions, their judgment is often swayed by their cognitive limitations. Simon hypothesized that to make sense of the world, the human brain develops mental shortcuts that help people to make decisions quickly without needing to analyze all the information that is available. These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics. 

Heuristic is a Greek word that means to discover something. It is a way to solve a problem by taking your personal experiences into account. However, sometimes our ability to make decisions and solve problems becomes difficult due to internal emotional or mental health struggles. In this article, the basics of heuristics psychology is explored with the end goal of recognizing when mental health issues may be interrupting decision-making and problem-solving.

Talking About Our Thoughts And Feelings Is Not Always Easy

Heuristics In Psychology

In psychology, heuristics are considered mental shortcuts. They are very efficient ways to make decisions or solve problems in some cases. Even when you make the wrong decision, you are benefitting because you are learning something, so long that the decision does not pose any threat to self or others. 

An example of heuristics in psychology is when a person takes a mental shortcut to arrive at a decision about why they feel they are not as mature as they should be. Rather than examining all possibilities why they feel this way and exploring if this really is the case, the person defaults to authority heuristics. Having just read a book on birth order written by an authority in the field, the person believes that they are rebellious because they were the last in the birth order – the baby of the family.

The following are examples of different types of heuristics in psychology:

  • Authority heuristics is when you believe someone just because they are in a position of authority.

  • Affect heuristics is a type of snap judgment or quick decision based on first impression.

  • Rules of thumb is a simple way to solve a problem by using a typical approach used by many others before so that you do not have to do any research.

  • Scarcity heuristics is typically used when something is rare, which makes it more desirable.

  • Familiarity heuristics is when you deal with a problem by basing it on a similar situation that you are familiar with.

  • Working backward lets you solve an issue by working backward in your mind to see how the solution might be found.

  • Available heuristics gives you the ability to judge the situation by using an example of a similar issue that you remember.

  • Contagious heuristics is when you stay away from something because others say that it is bad or can make you sick.

  • Common sense is something that we all need to have, but few of us use daily. It is the most prudent and practical way to decide when the answer seems to be simple.

  • Absurdity heuristics is a very unusual way to deal with a problem that most people do not think of, which is usually used when the situation seems absurd.

  • An educated guess is a way of solving a problem by using acquired experience and knowledge.

  • Consistency heuristics are when you respond to an issue in a way consistent with your typical way of responding to similar situations.

Heuristics In Action

Heuristics allow us to quickly solve problems and make decisions. For instance, as an experienced driver, you have learned to stop at a stop sign, otherwise, you are likely to get a ticket if caught by a cop. The reasons why people use heuristics and how they come to choosing the correct type of heuristic to use is complex and depends on the situation. Consider the following examples:

Biased Decisions

Some experts believe that heuristics can lead to bias. For example, if you are using a familiarity heuristic, the rule of thumb, or consistency heuristic, you may be jumping to conclusions when you should give your decision further thought. Decisions that are based on a person's beliefs or experiences are most often the best way to decide. When you make a decision based on your prior knowledge or what you believe to be true, it is likely to be a good choice.

Judgment Calls

In many cases, heuristics are efficient and useful rules that can help you decide based on good judgment. In other times, however, you may need to do further research to make a proper decision. There are logical answers in some cases that are obvious to you, and you do not have to think about. But when you are dealing with a complicated matter, and the decision is extremely important, it may be better to take more time to think about it. Making a judgement call in uncertain situations without clear perspective can lead to a biased decision and what you thought was improbable may become probable. 

Affect Heuristics Or Jumping To A Conclusion

A scientist named  proposed that people make decisions that are based on their cognitive limits, time constraints, and the available information they have at the time. Simon also believed that most people, even when given the time, are likely to make the quickest decision to get the matter resolved. This is an affect heuristic, also referred to as a snap decision or jumping to conclusions. These are not usually good decisions, but sometimes you can get lucky.

How We Use Heuristics In Everyday Life

People use heuristics daily to help resolve problems and make decisions quickly with the use of practical solutions. Heuristics offer people the opportunity to formulate short-term solutions, speed up the decision-making process, and provide mental short-cuts to make problem-solving easier. You use heuristics in everyday life by taking your prior knowledge and experience into account before passing a judgement or make a decision. You also use heuristics to learn and expand the understanding of the world around you. 

You typically do not solve problems or make decisions  the same way because some things require a lot more thought and research than others. Also, sometimes the decision must be made immediately, and you do not have the option of thinking about it. That is why there are so many different types of heuristics.

When the choice must be made right away, you are most likely going to make an educated guess or availability heuristic. Contagion heuristic is one of those decisions made because a few people have agreed that something is wrong, as is in the case of eggs getting recalled because several people said that they had gotten sick after eating them. Another example of an everyday heuristic is common sense – the prudent and practical approach to a decision when right or wrong answers seem clear. For example, you bring a raincoat and umbrella to work when the weather report indicates a rainstorm is imminent. 

Sometimes, the strategies that people use to problem solve and make decisions become clouded by internal emotional challenges or mental health disorders. In these cases, professional support is advisable. Any cognitive difficulty with memory, mental clarity, and the ability to make decisions can indicate a medical or mental health condition that needs to be diagnosed by a medical professional. 

Mental Health Disorders That Intervene With Decision-Making

Having difficult with making decisions can be a sign of a cognitive disorder or a mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder, depressive disorder, or anxiety-related disorder. Human emotions are a central component of a person’s internal state and can influence our ability to make decisions. If you are having trouble controling your emotions or are overwhelmed by them, you may notice you are unable to think clearly and make decisions as efficiently as before. 

Two mental health conditions that can lead to problems with making decisions is depression and anxiety disorders – the leading mental health disorders worldwide. Globally, anxiety and depression rates have increased globally by 25% since 2020. This accounts to 76.2 million more cases of anxiety disorders and 49.4 million cases of depressive disorders on top of the hundreds of millions of cases already in existence.

The need for mental health support is quite apparent when looking at these numbers. 

Symptoms Of Anxiety And Depression

The following list of symptoms in not all-inclusive, however, if you notice that you are managing any of them, seek profession therapeutic support. You may be managing an underlying health condition that is causing the symptoms or have yet to be diagnosed with a mood disorder. In either case, getting the help of a professional will not only provide you with strategies to improve your well-being but also intervene before the symptoms worsen.  

Signs of depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness for longer than 14 days

  • Sleeping more or less than you usually do

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Eating more or less than usual

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Isolating yourself

  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy

  • Feeling lost or alone

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Talking About Our Thoughts And Feelings Is Not Always Easy

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19.1% of adults had any anxiety disorder in the past year and approximately 31.1% of adults in the United States have experienced any type of anxiety disorder in their lives. It is the most common mental illness in the country. 

Signs of anxiety disorder include:

  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep

  • Loss of appetite

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Racing thoughts

  • Avoiding certain places or people

  • Irritability or aggression

  • Feelings of stress or extreme worry

  • Worrying about something constantly

  • Feeling dizzy or faint

  • Heart palpitations

  • Headaches

  • Twitchiness or shaking

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Restless or on edge

  • Sweating

  • Tense muscles

Professional Support Can Help

Heuristics psychology explores the different strategies the human brain uses to make sense of the world. In some cases, this ability to make decisions and solve problems becomes increasingly difficult, especially when managing anxiety-related or depressive disorders. Talking to a professional is essential when it comes to treating depression or anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, many people with these conditions find it difficult, or even impossible, to ask for help. Anxiety symptoms can make it hard for you to leave the house and depression can make it impossible for you to leave the bed. Luckily, some places can help you from home, like BetterHelp.com.  With over 2,000 professional counselors and therapists who are licensed and trained, BetterHelp can help you find a therapist who treats  depression, anxiety, and any other sort of mental health condition you may have. You do not need an appointment, and you do not even need to leave your house. 

Online therapy can be a welcomed option for people who are dealing with heightened stress and anxiety because they can get the support they need from the comfort of their own home. Research also supports the efficacy of online therapy as being equally effective as in-person therapy for people managing depression with the added benefits of convenience and accessibility. If you are living with depressive or anxiety symptoms or simply want to improve your ability to make decisions and solve problems, reach out for help today. 

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