• Meredith Moore

The science of heuristics, informing your feelings about risk

Ever stop and think about that sudden gut feeling you had? Where did it come from? Did you trust that feeling, or did you rationalize a reason to talk yourself out of, or into something despite your unconscious intelligence telling you otherwise? Those quick judgments and decisions we make every day are called heuristics. According to Psychology Today, a heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with minimal mental effort. As humans move throughout the world, they must process large amounts of information and make many choices within a limited amount of time. When information is missing, or an immediate decision is necessary, heuristics act as “rules of thumb” that guide behavior down the most efficient pathway. [1] This is why when you perform everyday tasks such as brushing your teeth, making your coffee and driving your car, you don’t have to stop and think about each step involved; you just do it automatically, you are relying on a heuristic.

Let’s look at an example (courtesy of authority pub)[2]. Take a look at the following sentence, is it grammatically correct?


While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a sparkly girl’s bracelet.


You probably said no, it’s not. But why exactly isn’t it correct? Hard to say unless you are an English teacher or editor. Most of us know this sentence is wrong but cannot exactly define why. This is an example of a heuristic in action. We make quick decisions based on our intuition, which comes from some vague previous experience (grammar school English class). If you want to know the correct way to write this sentence, it is while walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a girl’s sparkly bracelet. The description of the error is, it contains a misplaced modifier, a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. The girl isn’t sparkly; her bracelet is.


So now we have a feel for what heuristics are and how they work; let’s examine how heuristics apply to our decision-making abilities in situations where the probability of risk is high. There are many heuristics that can apply to this situation. Let’s start with one, the affect heuristic. The affect heuristic is “the process of making a judgment or decision, in which people consult or refer to the positive or negative feelings both consciously and unconsciously associated with the mental representativeness of the situation.”[3] When you need to assess a situation or individual and determine whether or not a potential threat exists, your previous experience matters. For example, if you had an ex-girlfriend that you cannot stand named Jackie, every other Jackie you meet will immediately trigger that memory and color your judgment of all others named Jackie. This is why survivors and first responders have a more reliable intuition about individuals and situations that might present a threat. They’ve lived through it.


This doesn’t mean that the affect heuristic or any heuristic, for that matter, is always reliable. Although the brain is highly evolved to use heuristics, there is room for bias and unreliability. Just as a 200 horse-power engine is designed to move fast it cannot do so without a steering well and tires.[4] Knowing about heuristics can help you recognize those pitfalls and biases, giving that big 200 horse-power brain of yours some guidance to steer you in the right direction. Next time you make a judgment or a decision, think about what in your past influenced your perception. Then you can begin to think about how to inform your awareness better, ultimately resulting in decisions and assessments that help you more effectively evaluate risk.


Until next time.

[1]Heuristics, Psychology Today undated. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/heuristics


[2]Fifteen-Common Grammar Mistakes. Authority Pub, undated. https://authority.pub/common-grammar-mistakes/


[3]The Feeling of Risk , New Perspectives on Risk Perception. Paul Slovic, 2010.


[4] Gut Feelings, The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Gerd Gigerenzer, 2007.

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