Substitution Heuristics

I think heuristics are underrated. We should discuss heuristics as a society way more than we do. We barely acknowledge heuristics, but if we look closely, they are at the heart of many of our decisions, beliefs, and assumptions. They save us a lot of work and help us move through the world pretty smoothly, but are rarely discussed directly or even slightly recognized.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights heuristics in the sense of substitution and explains their role as:

 

“The target question is the assessment you intended to produce.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answered instead.”

 

I have already written about our brain substituting easier questions for harder questions, but the idea of heuristics gives the process a deeper dimension. Kahneman defines a heuristic writing, “The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.”

 

In my own life, and I imagine I am a relatively average case, I have relied on heuristics to help me make a huge number of decisions. I don’t know the best possible investment strategies for my future retirement, but as a heuristic, I know that working with an investment advisor to manage mutual funds and IRAs can be an adequate (even if not perfect) way to ensure I save for the future. I don’t know the healthiest possible foods to eat and what food combinations will maximize my nutrient intake, but as a heuristic I can ensure that I have a colorful plate with varied veggies and not too many sweets to ensure I get enough of the vitamins and nutrients that I need.

 

We have to make a lot of difficult decisions in our lives. Most of us don’t have the time or the ability to compile all the information we need on a given subject to make a fully informed decision, and even if we try, most of us don’t have a reasonable way to sort through contrasting and competing information to determine what is true and what the best course of action would be. Instead, we make substitutions and use heuristics to figure out what we should do. Instead of recognizing that we are using heuristics, however, we ascribe a higher level of confidence and certainty to our decisions than is warranted. What we do, how we live, and what we believe become part of our identity, and we fail to recognize that we are adopting a heuristic to achieve some version of what we believe to be a good life. When pressed to think about it, our mind creates a justification for our decision that doesn’t acknowledge the heuristics in play.

 

In a world where we were quicker to recognize heuristics, we might be able to live with a little distance between ourselves, our decisions, and our beliefs. We could acknowledge that heuristics are driving us, and be more open to change and more willing to be flexible with others. Acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers (that we don’t even have all the necessary information) and are operating on substitution heuristics for complex questions, might help us be less polarized and better connected within our society.

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