I really like the idea of heuristics. I have always thought of heuristics as short-cuts for problem solving or rules of thumb to apply to given situations to ease cognitive demand. We live in an incredibly complex world and the nature of reality cannot be deduced just by observing the world around us. For the world to get to the point where I can drink an espresso while listing to music streamed across the internet as I write a blog post, humanity collectively had to make discoveries involving microscopes, electromagnetism, and electricity, none of which were easily observable or intuitively understandable to our human ancestors.
To cope with a complex world and a limited ability to explore and understand that world, humans thrived through the use of heuristics. When faced with difficult problems and decisions, we substitute approximate but not exact answers. We can make a category judgement and reduce the number of decisions we have to make, taking a generalized path that will usually turn out well. Heuristics help us cope with the overwhelming complexity of the world, but they are not perfect, and they simplify the world according to the information we can observe and readily take in.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “the heuristic answer is not necessarily simpler or more frugal than the original question – it is only more accessible, computed more quickly and easily. The heuristic answers are not random, and they are often approximately correct. And sometimes they are quite wrong.”
Heuristics are quick, which is important if you are foraging and hear a dangerous sound, if you need to pick a quick place for shelter as a storm approaches, or if you have to make quick decisions about how to behave in a small tribal group. The more fluidly and quicker a heuristic comes to mind, the more natural it will feel and the stronger people will grasp it, even if it is not true. Stories and myths contain relatable elements and extend common experiences to complex problems like how to govern an empire, understanding why storms occur, and guiding us as to how we should organize an economy. Heuristics give us short-cuts to understanding these complexities, but they are biased toward our accessible world and experiences, which means they only approximate reality, and cannot fully and accurately answer our questions. While they can get some concepts more or less correct and give us good approaches to life in general, they can also be very wrong with serious consequences for many people over many generations.