Heuristics Psychology Essay Writing

A heuristic is a word from the Greek meaning "to discover." It is an approach to problem solving that takes one's personal experience into account.  

Ways to Use Heuristics In Everyday Life

Here are some examples of real-life heuristics that people use as a way to solve a problem or to learn something:

  • "Consistency heuristic" is a heuristic where a person responds to a situation in way that allows them to remain consistent.
  • "Educated guess" is a heuristic that allows a person to reach a conclusion without exhaustive research. With an educated guess a person considers what they have observed in the past, and applies that history to a situation where a more definite answer has not yet been decided.
  • "Absurdity heuristic" is an approach to a situation that is very atypical and unlikely – in other words, a situation that is absurd. This particular heuristic is applied when a claim or a belief seems silly, or seems to defy common sense.
  • "Common sense" is a heuristic that is applied to a problem based on an individual’s observation of a situation. It is a practical and prudent approach that is applied to a decision where the right and wrong answers seems relatively clear cut.
  • "Contagion heuristic" causes an individual to avoid something that is thought to be bad or contaminated. For example, when eggs are recalled due to a salmonella outbreak, someone might apply this simple solution and decide to avoid eggs altogether to prevent sickness.
  • "Availability heuristic" allows a person to judge a situation on the basis of the examples of similar situations that come to mind, allowing a person to extrapolate to the situation in which they find themselves.
  • "Working backward" allows a person to solve a problem by assuming that they have already solved it, and working backward in their minds to see how such a solution might have been reached.
  • "Familiarity heuristic" allows someone to approach an issue or problem based on the fact that the situation is one with which the individual is familiar, and so one should act the same way they acted in the same situation before.
  • "Scarcity heuristic" is used when a particular object becomes rare or scarce. This approach suggests that if something is scarce, then it is more desirable to obtain.
  • "Rule of thumb" applies a broad approach to problem solving. It is a simple heuristic that allows an individual to make an approximation without having to do exhaustive research.
  • "Affect heuristic" is when you make a snap judgment based on a quick impression. This heuristic views a situation quickly and decides without further research whether a thing is good or bad.  Naturally, this heuristic can be both helpful and hurtful when applied in the wrong situation.
  • "Authority heuristic" occurs when someone believes the opinion of a person of authority on a subject just because the individual is an authority figure. People apply this heuristic all the time in matters such as science, politics, and education.

By reviewing these heuristic examples you can get an overview of the various techniques of problem solving and gain an understanding of how to use them when you need to solve a problem in the future. 

Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.

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Examples of Heuristics

By YourDictionary

A heuristic is a word from the Greek meaning "to discover." It is an approach to problem solving that takes one's personal experience into account.  

When individuals engage in decision-making or judgment it is often necessary to use heuristics to help process the information that they encounter. Heuristics have been called rules of thumb but can be also viewed as cognitive frameworks for processing information during decision-making. Heuristics can be more or less effective based on a number of factors. Examples of types of heuristic include the anchoring and adjustment heuristic and the representative heuristic. Heuristics can be applied in many areas including education and viewed from unique vantage points such as the positive psychology approach.

Keywords Affect Heuristic; Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic; Attribute Substitution; Decision-Making; Heuristics; Judgment; Moral Heuristics; Problem-Solving; Representative Heuristic


Individuals use heuristics to make decisions or come to conclusions about any number of events, people, or situations they encounter in their environment. Heuristics can be thought of as rules of thumb individuals use to make decisions across a range of circumstances (Veermans, van Joolingen, & de Jong, 2006). The rules of thumb that are heuristics are really cognitive frameworks that are developed through experience and implemented during problem-solving (Abel, 2003). Heuristics have been conceptualized as one aspect of a broader information-processing system that also entails perception, memory, and processing information in an ordered sequence (Hogarth, 1981). Additionally, the heuristic system has been posited to be one type of reasoning system within the realm of dual-process reasoning theories (De Neys, 2006).

About Heuristics

Characteristics of heuristics include:

• The possibility that their use could result in conclusions that are incorrect,

• The ability to apply them in a variety of circumstances,

• Being domain-specific or general in nature, and

• Being viewed in implicit or explicit terms (Veermans, van Joolingen, & de Jong, 2006).

In regard to the notion that using heuristics may lead to incorrect conclusions, it is also the case that using heuristics can lead to conclusions that may be correct yet inaccurate in some way (Abel, 2003; Smith, 1999). Inaccuracy resulting from the use of heuristics is often due to error that comes into play during the decision-making process.

Hogarth and Karelaia (2007) examined how effective heuristics have been and under what conditions heuristics prove to be more or less accurate. Conditions posited to affect heuristic accuracy and efficacy were the amount of information encountered and the existence of trade-offs concerning cues and attributes in information processing. Hogarth and Karelaia compared linear models of information processing with heuristic use in regard to regions of rationality. Heuristics performed more accurately when there was consonance between the nature of the heuristic and the environment in which they were used. Furthermore, decision-making using heuristics will frequently involve the assessment of the representativeness of the stimuli being evaluated and the outcomes being predicted (Kahneman & Tversky, 1996). Finally, heuristics may prove disadvantageous in decision-making when the settings in which individuals find themselves necessitate analytical and extended reasoning and not the quicker pace of heuristics (De Neys, 2006).

Types of Heuristics

Given the ubiquity of heuristics in everyday life, it stands to reason that there are a variety of heuristics in existence. Researchers continue to investigate how and why certain types of heuristics are utilized or “selected” for particular situations (Marewski & Schooler, 2011). Swinkels (2003) is just one of many researchers who has asserted that individuals use heuristics to help themselves process the social information they receive while attempting to make decisions. He reviewed several types of heuristics:

• Representative,

• Availability,

• Simulation, and

• Anchoring and adjustment heuristics.

Representative Heuristics

According to Swinkels, the representative heuristic involves using information about the more prototypical characteristics of groupings of people or things to make decisions about individual people or members of groups.

Availability Heuristics

In using the availability heuristic, individuals draw upon familiar exemplars of characteristics of groups as they process information.

Simulation Heuristics

The simulation heuristic involves the ability of individuals to create as many possible situations related to the question a hand.


The anchoring and adjustment heuristic entails using a point of reference or an "anchor" when processing information during the decision-making process. The initial anchor often undergoes an adjustment before an individual settles on a decision (Swinkles, 2003).

Quite a few researchers have examined the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. For instance, Smith (1999) stated that adults have been documented to use the anchoring and adjustment but less was known about if, and how, children use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. Smith conducted a study with students in elementary and middle school grades on the use of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. Results indicated that even students in the youngest grades (i.e., third grade) used the anchoring and adjustment heuristic.

Further investigation of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic has yielded more intriguing findings. Morrow (2002) noted that the anchor in the anchoring and adjustment heuristic may unduly influence subsequent decisions if the information used to make the first estimate in the decision-making process is not sound, or the adjustments that are made fall short in accuracy. Epley and Gilovich (2006) highlighted the lack of appropriate adjustment when individuals use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic such that adjustments still remain in a range close to the anchor. They found that providing individuals with cautionary guidelines about anchoring effects led to more adjustments being made but only when the individuals supplied the anchor themselves.

Affect Heuristic

Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson (2000) posited that an affect heuristic is used in decision-making by individuals. The affect heuristic incorporates the positive and negative valences attributed to various representations when individuals make judgments, particularly about risks and benefits. Finucane and colleagues suggested that the affect heuristic accounts in some part for the negative association between risks and benefits during the decision-making process. Kahneman (2003) proclaimed the affect heuristic to be as seminal in the heuristics arena as the representative and availability heuristic.

Fluency, Generation

In addressing additional heuristics, Whittlesea and Leboe (2000) focused on recall and recognition tasks as they related to decision-making and their relevance to the construct of remembering. The fluency, generation, and resemblance heuristics were posited to play roles in remembering. The fluency heuristic pertains to the facility with which individuals can process information about tangible stimuli in the environment (Olds & Westerman, 2012). Generation heuristics are related to the amount of information an individual is able to generate about a stimulus encountered in the environment. The resemblance heuristic refers to how many aspects of a stimulus are concordant with an individual's expectations of the stimulus due to past encounters as opposed to the current setting that the individual engages with the stimulus. The resemblance and generation heuristics are information gathering heuristics while the fluency heuristic is referred to by the authors as a quality-of-performance, or information processing, heuristic.


Brandstätter, Gigerenzer, and Hertwig (2006) defined the priority heuristic as a framework by which individuals make decisions by prioritizing the gathered information, limiting the amount of information to review, and then making a decision given the information gathered. The priority heuristic stands in contrast to the weighting and summing process that comprises the trade-off theory of information processing. Sunstein (2003) addressed the topic of moral heuristics, or the use of rules of thumb in regard to moral and political topics, and the problems that arise when they are used without taking context into account. An example of a moral heuristic is the outrage heuristic where individuals make judgments about the punishment for a transgression based on the level of outrage the transgression evokes. Kahneman and Frederick (2002) offered the terms indignation heuristic or anger heuristic as possible synonyms for the outrage heuristic.


Discovery Learning

Heuristics have also been applied within various arenas and in diverse ways. For example, Veermans, van Joolingen, and de Jong (2006) detailed how viewing heuristics in implicit or explicit terms influences the discovery learning process. Discovery learning involves engaging students in the learning process through active and direct exploration of phenomena of interest. The use of implicit heuristics in discovery learning provides students with instructions garnered from a heuristic while explicit heuristic use entails naming the heuristic to be used and detailing the instructions yielded from the heuristic.

Research by Veermans and colleagues found students who...

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