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Heuristics: Mental shortcuts

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

It is helpful to examine our thoughts. Our intelligence enables us to make assumptions, jump to conclusions, have thought patterns, and trains of thoughts. However, we aren't perfect, and we can have thoughts that are wrong, incorrect, irrational, illogical, distorted, ruminative, and unhelpful to us. Therefore, let's think about our thinking. It is a huge asset to be able to identify, challenge, reframe, restructure, unhelpful thinking styles so we aren't rigidly stuck in our thoughts, but are able to be flexible with and change our thoughts.

We encounter a large amount of information and make a lot of decisions every day. What should I eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner? What should I wear today? What should I do today? Our brains take shortcuts to simplify these decisions, so we don't have to spend endless amounts of time analyzing every piece of information and decision.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are assumptions we make to process information and make decisions quickly and efficiently. Heuristics are helpful in many situations, but they can also lead to negative biases. Becoming aware of heuristics can help you process information more accurately and make better decisions.

Types of heuristics

Confirmation heuristic: We tend to process information that is consistent with our existing belief. For example, if you think someone is lazy, you will continue to focus on the lazy things that they do and ignore the work they are doing.

Attribution heuristic: We tend to assume that a person's actions are because of their character rather than any situational factor. We tend to overestimate the weight of someone's personality traits, and underestimate the influence the external circumstances have on their behaviors.

Availability heuristic: We tend to make decisions based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. When you are trying to make a decision, you will consider your initial options as being the best options. For example, if you are deciding to drive or fly, you may think about recent airline disasters. Since those examples of air disasters came to mind so easily, you think that plane crashes are more common than they really are.

Familiarity heuristic: Given two options, people tend to choose the option they are more familiar with, even if the new option is the better option.

Representativeness heuristic: We tend to view the present situation and connect it with the most representative prototype. For example, an older woman might remind you of your grandmother, so you assume that she is kind, gentle, and trustworthy.

Affect heuristic: We can make decisions based on the emotions that we are experiencing at that moment. For example, people see their options as having benefits and lower risks when they are in a positive mood. On the other hand, when people are in a negative mood, they tend to focus on the costs and risks of a decision rather than the possible benefits.

Anchoring heuristic: We are overly influenced by the first piece of information that we hear. For example, anchoring heuristic can cause you to jump at the first offer without shopping around for a better deal.

Scarcity heuristic: We view things that are scarce or less available to us, as inherently more valuable. Stores put up signs like: "limited time only", "get it while supplies last."

Group think heuristic: We want to get along with people so we tend to conform to what the group thinks. People will set aside their own personal beliefs to adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.

Heuristics can contribute to stereotypes and prejudice because we use mental shortcuts to classify and categorize people. We can make assumptions about people and overlook more relevant information about who the person really is. It is helpful to identify and examine your thought patterns, and to change your thinking where necessary.

How to address your mental shortcuts:

1. Stop and slow down to think through your thoughts.

We are more likely to make an error in judgment when we try to do things quickly. Instead of rushing to make a decision, say to yourself, "Stop, let's think this through." Take 3-10 deep breaths. Do something to reset your focus on the decision at hand. "Let's take a minute here." Then process the information and which decision to make. Say something like, "Let's consider all the options."

2. Clarify the goal.

We impulsively want to do what works for us, and make decisions that serve our immediate best interest. Be aware of these impulses, and take a moment to identify what you are trying to achieve. Are there other people who will be affected by this decision? What is best for them? Is there a common goal that can be achieved together? Is there a bigger picture goal we can aim for?

3. Separate facts from feelings.

While emotions can be helpful, they may distort your perspective of the situation. Take a moment to consider what you are feeling and how these emotions are influencing your decision making. Then, try to process the information apart from that emotion. "My emotions are telling me to do this, but logic says to do this."

4. Address distorted thoughts.

Common thought distortions are: All or nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, filtering, minimizing, and magnifying. Heuristics and distorted thoughts can lead to a fatalistic mindset, where you become fearful of making the wrong decision. Consider possible compromises between two choices, or the possibility of a third or fourth option that you didn't even think of at first. Recognize the nuances and possibilities of the situation.


Our brains will always try to take shortcuts and process information and decisions efficiently. We can easily fall into these thought patterns. It is important to acknowledge the ways we do this. It is helpful to examine our thought patterns. "What am I thinking? Why do I think that? Is there another way to think about this?" Then take the steps to change the wrong thinking.

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