Heuristics and Cognitive Biases

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