What Is a Heuristic?

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.

Why Do People Use Heuristics?

Humans developed heuristics over millions of years; since they save both cognitive energy and time, they likely provided an evolutionary advantage to those who relied on them.

The familiarity heuristic, for example—in which something that is familiar is preferred over unknown objects or people—could be used quickly by early humans to determine which foods, people, or locations were safe. The heuristics that were most useful to early humans, however, may not be as reliable in the modern world, in which an unfamiliar human or food does not necessarily pose the same level of danger as it once did.

Heuristics are not unique to human evolution; animals have been observed using heuristics that, though less complex, similarly serve to simplify decision-making and reduce cognitive load.

When Heuristics Steer Us Wrong

One often incorrect heuristic is known as fundamental attribution error, sometimes called the attribution effect or correspondence bias. The term describes the tendency of individuals to attribute others’ behavior primarily to internal factors—like personality or character—while attributing their own behavior more to external or situational factors.

For example, if one person steps on the foot of another in a crowded elevator, the victim may attribute it to carelessness. If, on the other hand, they themselves step on another’s foot, they may be more likely to attribute the mistake to being jostled by someone else.


Bias, Decision-Making

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