Estimating and Guesstimating The Power Of Mental Shortcuts

Everyone likes a shortcut, whether its a faster way to get home from work in the evening or a quick weight loss diet plan. We all like to get results fast. Our brain’s are no exception to this. While there are some things such as regulating heartbeat and blood pressure that our brain’s can’t skimp on there is plenty that it can. This is estimating and guesstimating come in, in the psychology realm their known as heuristics.

Heuristics are the processes the brain uses to make estimations about something but only after it has stockpiled enough support through previous instances. While heuristics are helpful since they allow for snap judgments and ‘gut feelings’ they can also be very damaging since our snap judgments and ‘gut feelings’ are not always right.

Right or wrong heuristics come in three basic variations, representative, anchoring, and availability.

Representative Heuristics: Where stereotypes are born…

The representative heuristic is what allows us to say, if it looks like a dog, and smells like a dog, it’s a dog. It’s also what allows jurors to decide that the blurred man they watched on the video of the store robbery is the same man sitting in front of them awaiting conviction. Or that the brown-skinned man speaking on his cell phone in line behind you is a terrorist, despite those conclusions being entirely false.

Anchoring Heuristics: Why it’s so hard to change someone’s mind…

As the name suggest the anchoring heuristic involves making estimations on how likely an event is to occur based on a previously determined likeliness. Consider the following, it has rained all week, it’s now Saturday morning and you’ve been invited to the beach. You may have already decided that it is extremely likely that it is going to rain today. Your friend tells you that it’s a beautiful day outside and that there isn’t a rain cloud in sight, you may now shift  from thinking it is extremely likely to thinking it is likely. This subtle shift based off of your previous estimation is the anchoring heuristic at work.

Availability Heuristic: The media’s best friend…

Take a moment and recall as many instances as you can of the media reporting a successful flight.  You probably can’t think of many if at all, now take a moment and recall as many instances as you can of the media reporting an unsuccessful one. This is much easier to recall, if you’re having trouble with that one try this one. How many instances can you recall of the media reporting economic growth an increase in jobs etc. Maybe a handful of instances, now try to recall instances of the media reporting economic collapse, decreases in jobs, increases in unemployment etc. Those instances are so fresh that they require almost no effort to bring forth.

This is the availability heuristic, it is the mind’s tendency to make decisions and judgments based on how easily it is to recall something, regardless of how often it occurs in life. The availability heuristic is why it’s so easy for you or your significant other, or parent, or child to recall all the instances of wrong doing, and to label each other as a ‘horrible person.’ For the most part the majority of people treat their loved ones good, so good that good becomes the norm, and the few times something that is perceived as wrong occurs it becomes a spectacle in the victims mind that will be remembered.

Heuristics are only one of the many techniques used by the brain to process all the information we are constantly exposed to. And while for the most part they are employed to our benefit, such as skipping the first gas station in favor of the second which is usually cheaper they can also be used against us. Being aware of them and being able to identify when your brain is relying on them is one more step in becoming more aware of how your own mind works.

Whether you are anchoring yourself like a ship coming to a stop, allowing your affection for someone to grow by recalling their love, or relying on stereotypes and assumptions to avoid dangerous situations, heuristics are there to be used. So use them.

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