What Is Heuristics Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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In the 1950s, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Herbert Simon, found that even though individuals often want to make rational decisions, their cognitive limitations may sway their judgment. Simon hypothesized that to make sense of the world, the human brain develops mental shortcuts that help people make decisions quickly without analyzing all the available information. These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics. 

Heuristic is a Greek word that means "to discover." It is a way to solve a problem by considering your personal experiences. However, at times, one's ability to make decisions and solve problems becomes difficult due to internal emotional or mental health challenges. Understanding heuristics in psychology can help you understand when mental health challenges may interrupt your decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Talking about our thoughts and feelings is not always easy

Heuristics in psychology

In psychology, heuristics are considered mental shortcuts. In some cases, they may be efficient ways to make decisions or solve problems. You might benefit even when you make the wrong decision because you can learn from the situation.

An example of heuristics in psychology is when a person takes a mental shortcut to decide why they feel they are not as mature as they should be. Rather than examining why they may feel this way, they may read a book on birth order written by an authority in the field. After reading, they may believe they are immature because they were the last in the birth order. However, this conclusion might not be true. 

Types of heuristics

There are multiple ways individuals use heuristics. Below are several types considered in psychology: 

  • Authority Heuristics: Believing someone primarily because they are an authority on the subject 
  • Affect Heuristics: Making a snap judgment or quick decision based on a first impression
  • Rules of Thumb Heuristics: Solving a problem by using a popular approach so that you don't have to do your own research  
  • Scarcity Heuristics: Using a rare point to make it seem more desirable or valuable 
  • Familiarity Heuristics: Dealing with a problem by basing it on a similar situation that you are familiar with
  • Working Backward: Solving a challenge by working backward in your mind to see how the solution might be found
  • Available Heuristics: Judging the situation by using only information available to you 
  • Contagious Heuristics: Staying away from an object, person, situation, or source because others say that it is unhealthy or harmful 
  • Absurdity Heuristics: Using an unusual or unique problem-solving strategy because the problem itself is unusual 
  • An Educated Guess: Solving a problem by using acquired experience and knowledge 
  • Consistency Heuristics: Responding to a challenge in a way consistent with your typical way of responding to similar situations

Heuristics in action

Heuristics can allow people to solve problems and make decisions quickly. For instance, as an experienced driver, you may have learned to stop at a stop sign so you don't hit other people or get a ticket. The reasons why people use heuristics and how they choose the correct type of heuristics are complex and depend on the situation. Below are a few examples. 

Biased decisions

Some experts believe that heuristics can lead to bias. For example, if you use a familiarity heuristic, the rule of thumb, or consistency heuristic, you may jump to conclusions instead of giving the decision further thought. Decisions based on a person's beliefs or experiences may be safer. When you decide based on your prior knowledge or what you believe to be true, you may know more about the potential outcomes. 

Judgment calls

In some cases, heuristics are efficient and useful rules that can help you decide based on positive judgment. However, in other cases, you may want to do further research to make a proper decision. When you are facing a complicated matter, it may be healthier to take some time to consider all angles of the situation before deciding. Making a judgment call in uncertain situations without a clear perspective can lead to a biased decision. 

Affect heuristics or jumping to a conclusion

People may make decisions based on their cognitive limits, time constraints, and the available information they have at the time. In addition, some people may value making the quickest decision to reduce their time to deal with a challenge. An affect heuristic is often called a snap decision or jumping to conclusions. Although these decisions can sometimes work out, they may also cause bumps along the way, as enough planning may not have gone into the potential outcome, even if it is positive.  

How are heuristics used in everyday life? 

People use everyday heuristics to quickly resolve problems and make decisions using practical solutions. Heuristics allow people to formulate short-term solutions, speed up decision-making, and consider mental shortcuts to make problem-solving easier. You can use heuristics in everyday life by considering your prior knowledge and experience before passing judgment or deciding. You can also use heuristics to learn and expand your understanding of the world. 

When the choice must be made right away, you may choose to make an educated guess or use an availability heuristic. For example, you can use the contagion heuristic by throwing out eggs when you hear that they were recalled due to public sickness. In addition, you might bring a raincoat and umbrella to work when the weather report indicates a rainstorm is imminent, as you know you're uncomfortable when you don't. 

Sometimes, the strategies people use to solve problems and make decisions become clouded by internal emotional challenges or mental health conditions. In these cases, it can be beneficial to talk to a professional to determine whether your strategies are helping or harming you. Cognitive difficulty with memory, mental clarity, and decision-making can indicate a medical or mental health condition. 

What mental illnesses interfere with decision-making? 

Difficulty making decisions can be a sign of a mental health condition like borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, or anxiety, among others. Human emotions are a central component of a person's internal state and can influence one's ability to make decisions. If you are overwhelmed by your emotions, you might struggle to tap into the parts of your brain that draw logical conclusions. In addition, if you've been through a traumatic event, your learned experiences may have taught you that many situations are unsafe, causing you to react as though all scenarios are unsafe.  

Anxiety and depressive disorders are the most common mental illnesses worldwide. Globally, anxiety and depression rates have increased by 25% since 2020. This number accounts for 76.2 million more cases of anxiety disorders and 49.4 million cases of depressive disorders, on top of the hundreds of millions already in existence. To understand how anxiety and depression impact the mind, examining their symptoms in more depth can be helpful. 

Signs of a depressive disorder 

Depressive disorders like major depressive disorder (MDD) can cause overwhelming sadness. Other signs of depression can include the following: 

  • Feelings of sadness that persist for over two weeks 
  • Sleeping more or less than normal 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Isolation or social withdrawal 
  • A lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • A feeling of being lost or alone 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

This list of symptoms is not all-inclusive. However, if you notice that you are experiencing these symptoms, it can be beneficial to seek professional therapeutic support. 

Signs of an anxiety disorder 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19.1% of adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year, and approximately 31.1% of adults in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder. Signs of an anxiety disorder can include the following: 

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Racing thoughts
  • Avoidance of certain places or people
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Stress or extreme worry
  • Constant worrying 
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Twitchiness or shaking
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Restlessness or feeling "on edge"
  • Sweating
  • Tense muscles

Talking about our thoughts and feelings is not always easy

Support options 

Heuristics psychology explores the human brain's different strategies to make sense of the world. However, one's ability to make decisions and solve problems can be perceived as difficult when one lives with an anxiety disorder or depression. In these cases, talking to a professional may be advantageous.  

Some people might not seek help because they fear it will be difficult or impossible. Anxiety symptoms can make it scary to leave home, and depression can make it difficult to get out of bed. However, with an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you may be able to connect with a counselor from home. Working with a provider online allows you to choose between phone, video, or chat sessions and select a session time whenever is convenient for you. 

Research also supports the efficacy of online therapy, showing it can be equally as effective as in-person therapy for those living with depression. 

Takeaway

If you are living with depression or anxiety symptoms or want to improve your ability to make decisions, many types of therapy are available to you. Consider contacting a licensed therapist online or in your area to get started.
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