A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with the least amount of mental effort. As humans move throughout the world, they must process large amounts of information and make many choices within limited amounts 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.
Examples of heuristics include the representativeness heuristic, in which people categorize objects (or other people) based on how similar they are to known entities—assuming someone described as "quiet" is more likely to be a librarian than a politician, for instance. The availability heuristic, on the other hand, describes the mental shortcut in which someone estimates whether something is likely to occur based on how readily examples come to mind. Satisficing, another well-known heuristic, is a decision-making strategy in which the first option that satisfies certain criteria is selected, even if other, better options may exist.
Though these and other heuristics can be (and often are) advantageous, they aren’t perfect; if relied on too heavily, they can result in incorrect judgments or cognitive biases. Assuming, for example, that child abductions are very common because they’re frequently reported on the news—an example of the availability heuristic—may trigger unnecessary fear that one’s child is likely to be abducted. Understanding commonly used heuristics, and identifying situations where they could be affecting behavior, may help individuals avoid such mental pitfalls.