Heuristics and Cognitive Biases

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While reading Daniel Kahneman’s work, I came across the science of Heuristics. Heuristics or the technique of heuristic employs a practical method not necessarily optimal or perfect, but sufficient enough for immediate goals. It also leads to cognitive biases.

Herbert Simon, in the 1950s, was the first psychologist to suggest that while people strive to make rational choices, human judgment is subject to cognitive limitations. Later, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s presented their research on the cognitive biases that influence how people think and the judgments people make. When I was reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I was indeed fascinated by how this psychologist duo conducted numerous researches in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and succeeded to put forward the science of Heuristics and its impacts on our judgments and decision-making. While Tversky died in 1966, Kahneman went on to publish their research and later developed more theories on Cognitive Psychology.

How Heuristics lead to Cognitive biases, however, is easy to understand if we identify the technique of heuristics as the limitations that we are forced to rely on, as the mental shortcuts which help us make sense of the world. While Simon’s research demonstrated how humans were limited in their cognitive ability to make rational judgments and decisions, Tversky and Kahneman’s work introduced the very specific ways of thinking humans tend to rely on in order to simplify their decision-making process.

According to psychologists, we use Heuristics for a) effort reduction due to our cognitive laziness, b) attribute substitution due to substituting simpler questions with the difficult ones and c) because of heuristics being fast, immediate and frugal. We use these heuristics in our day-to-day life to keep up with the enormous amount of data we encounter because they help to speed up our decision-making process. In short, Heuristics are the mental strategies that our brain relies on to simplify things and speed up our decision-making process in order to avoid spending an endless amount of time by analyzing every detail. For example, an availability heuristic lets a person judge a situation on the basis of examples of other similar situations that comes to the mind of the person, therefore, allowing the person to hypothesize the situation in which they find themselves.

I think this connects directly to Kahneman’s work in Thinking Fast and Slow, i.e., the workings of the two systems of our cognitive mind (System 1 making these heuristical decisions because we tend to avoid putting System 2 to work). What is System 1 and System 2? Simply put, these two systems represent two distinct modes of decision making i.e., System 1 is an automatic, fast and often unconscious way of thinking, therefore, it is autonomous and efficient and hence, requires less energy or attention and is prone to cognitive biases. Meanwhile, System 2 represents an effortful, slow and a controlled way of thinking.

Heuristics are divided into three kinds i.e., a) the Availability heuristics, b) the representativeness heuristics that involves making a decision by comparing the present situation to the most representative mental prototype and, c) the Affect heuristics that involves making choices that are strongly influenced by the emotions that an individual is experiencing at that moment.

While reading about this, I quickly realized its connection to Critical Thinking and how this bias is a possible measure of Critical Thinking itself. I think heuristics, as they are associated with our thinking dispositions along with our cognitive ability, is precisely the reason why we almost necessarily require critical thinking skills in life. Not because some of us are unable to think critically in a short span of time, but because the human cognitive system is designed to rely upon system 1 by default rather than system 2. It is upon the humans to realize and overcome these biases by understanding the significance of system 2. To understand why our unconscious mind affects our System 1, I think reading Leonard Mlodinow’s work might give the necessary reason and perception.

– Sanjana Singh








  1. Earthpages.org

    Nicely presented. I think this is saying we tend to jump to conclusions but with a little care we can make more thorough assessments?

    Ironically, while reading this I was thinking the theory of Heuristics could also apply to itself (just as you note toward the end with Critical Thinking). Without having looked at the sources I wonder if the proponents of Heuristics theory do not realize they are still using their own system 1.


    Well, because so few psychologists consider the possibility of *spiritual* influences, good and bad, on our thought processes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. BabyDanjer

    Quite insightful and well written as usual, in computer science parlance Heuristics are a class of algorithms which solve a complex problem by trading optimality, correctness, accuracy for speed. I know now where it has the roots!


  3. Dean Kyte

    BabyDanjer is quite correct: the study of heuristics with relationship to algorithms and machine learning has quite a long history. If you’re interested in this subject, I highly recommend Stafford Beer’s “The Brain of the Firm” to you. Beer not only presents heuristics in relation to nascent computer science, but his theory has its basis in biology and neuroscience.

    To take issue with Earthpages.org, however, I’m not sure your assessment is either correct or fair. Firstly, you must remember that psychology falls (often tenuously) within the domain of science, and science follows the hypothetico-deductive method: all observers in the field need to agree about the results observed through repeatable, independent experimentation in order for those results to be provisionally deemed valid. This is the basic ‘rule’ that all players of the scientific ‘game’ agree to be bound by when observing phenomena in the field and reporting the results of their observations to each other for verification.

    The scientific method therefore places a constraint on the order of phenomena can be reliably observed by all observers in the field and dependably repeated through independent experimentation. Things of the mind are notoriously difficult to observe and even more difficult to independently verify by another observer—let alone by all observers. The problem for psychology as a tenuous party to the scientific ‘game’, is that the constraint placed on the things of the mind which can be independently observed by all observers in the field must therefore be very large indeed, probably excluding to a great extent an order of phenomena which is already almost totally excluded by science as being not independently and universally verifiable: the realm of the spiritual.

    In other words, Earthpages.org is probably correct if he/she means that science is basically a ‘System 1’ method of thinking in itself: it utilizes a basic common denominator way of investigating the unknown. Where I think that characterization is unfair, however, is that this basic common denominator approach has (despite the profound limitations science has placed upon itself in terms of what it regards as ‘known’ or ‘knowable’) proved to be the most efficacious method of thinking that human beings have ever produced to investigate their world and operate effectively within it.

    By all parties to the game agreeing on what can basically be known in all fields of science because the results of independent experimentation have been mutually ratified and not disproved up to the present moment, science actually creates, over time, a System 2 method, as more mutually verified facts are determined by the slow, effortful, controlled way of thinking. In other words, the complexity of the accretion of simple facts builds exponentially upon itself. While a basic methodological heuristic is still used, it is used in an increasingly subtle and mindful way. The proof of this is our technological revolution: not one item of technology we use could have been produced but by the rigorous application of this simple heuristic to the point where it has produced such complex results.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ShiftyBeans

    One thing to remember. Just because we enlighten ourselves with understanding heuristics and judgments in human decision making it doesn’t make us immune to them. Some people believe that if they know biases they can avoid them. Sadly as experiments show humans can’t. see New Scientist for details. Some people get overconfident in their own ability to make judgements because of it. That can also get scornful if other people’s judgements too. This is just more human bias!

    Liked by 1 person

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