Heuristics, explained: The mental shortcuts we use to make decisions

Alicia Raeburn contributor headshotAlicia Raeburn4 augusti 202210 min. läsning
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Heuristics are simple rules of thumb that our brains use to make decisions. When you choose a work outfit that looks professional instead of sweatpants, you’re making a decision based on past information. That's not intuition, it’s heuristics. Instead of weighing all the information available to make a data-backed choice, heuristics enable us to move quickly into action—mostly, without us even realizing it. In this article, you’ll learn what heuristics are, common types, and how we use them in different scenarios.

Green means go. Most of us accept this as common knowledge, but it’s actually an example of a micro-decision—in this case, your brain is deciding to go when you see the color green. 

You make countless of these subconscious decisions every day. Many things that you might think just come naturally to you are actually caused by heuristics—mental shortcuts that allow you to quickly process information and take action. Heuristics help you to make smaller, almost unnoticeable decisions using past information, without much rational input from your brain. 

Heuristics are helpful for getting things done more quickly, but they can also lead to biases and irrational choices if you’re not aware of them. Luckily, you can use heuristics to your advantage once you recognize them, and make better decisions in the workplace.

What is a heuristic?

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that your brain uses to make decisions. When we make rational choices, our brains weigh all the information, pros and cons, and any relevant data. But it’s not possible to do this for every single decision we make on a day-to-day basis. For the smaller ones, your brain uses heuristics to infer information and take almost-immediate action. 

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History and origins

Daniel Kahneman was one of the first researchers to study heuristics in his behavioral economics work in the 1970’s, along with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky. They theorized that many of the decisions and judgements we make aren’t rational—meaning we don’t move through a series of decision-making steps to come to a solution. Instead, the human brain uses mental shortcuts to form seemingly irrational, “fast and frugal” decisions—quick choices that don’t require a lot of mental energy. 

Kahneman’s work showed that heuristics lead to systematic errors (or biases), which act as the driving force for our decisions. He was able to apply this research to economic theory, leading to the formation of behavioral economics and a Nobel Prize for Kahneman in 2002.

In the years since, the study of heuristics has grown in popularity with economists and in cognitive psychology. Gerd Gigerenzer’s research, for example, challenges the idea that heuristics lead to errors or flawed thinking. He argues that heuristics are actually indicators that human beings are able to make decisions more effectively without following the traditional rules of logic. His research seems to indicate that heuristics lead us to the right answer most of the time.

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How heuristics work

Heuristics are mental shortcuts based on information your brain naturally gathers and stores as you go about your days. Your brain uses these heuristics to form biases, so it knows what to decide when presented with similar situations. This works fine for smaller, everyday scenarios—but not ones that require major problem-solving

For example, if you’re making a larger decision about whether to accept a new job or stay with your current one, your brain will process this information slowly. For decisions like this, you collect data by referencing sources—chatting with mentors, reading company reviews, and comparing salaries. Then, you use that information to make your decision. Meanwhile, your brain is also using heuristics to help you speed along that track. In this example, you might use something called the “availability heuristic” to reference things you’ve recently seen about the new job. The availability heuristic makes it more likely that you’ll remember a news story about the company’s higher stock prices. Without realizing it, this can make you think the new job will be more lucrative. 

On the flip side, you can recognize that the new job has had some great press recently, but that might be just a great PR team at work. Instead of “buying in” to what the availability heuristic is trying to tell you—that positive news means it’s the right job—you can acknowledge that this is a bias at work. In this case, comparing compensation and work-life balance between the two companies is a much more effective way to choose which job is right for you.

The use of heuristics: pros and cons

Heuristics are effective at helping you get more done quickly, but they also have downsides. Psychologists don’t necessarily agree on whether heuristics and biases are positive or negative. But the argument seems to boil down to these two pros and cons:

Heuristics pros: 

  • Simple heuristics reduce cognitive load, allowing you to accomplish more in less time with fast and frugal decisions. For example, the satisficing heuristic helps you find a “good enough” choice. So if you’re making a complex decision between whether to cut costs or invest in employee well-being, you can use satisficing to find a solution that’s a compromise. The result might not be perfect, but it allows you to take action and get started—you can always adjust later on.

Heuristics cons: 

  • Heuristics create biases. While these cognitive biases enable us to make rapid-fire decisions, they can also lead to rigid, unhelpful beliefs. For example, confirmation bias makes it more likely that you’ll seek out other opinions that agree with your own. This makes it harder to keep an open mind, hear from the other side, and ultimately, change your mind—which doesn’t help you build the flexibility and adaptability so important for succeeding in the workplace.

The difference between heuristics and algorithms

Heuristics and algorithms are both used by the brain to reduce the mental effort of decision-making, but they operate a bit differently. Algorithms act as a guideline for specific scenarios. They have a structured process designed to solve that specific problem. Heuristics, on the other hand, are general rules of thumb that help the brain to process information, and may or may not reach a solution.

For example, let's say you’re cooking a well-loved family recipe. You know the steps inside and out, and you no longer need to reference the instructions. If you’re following a recipe step-by-step, you’re using an algorithm. If, however, you decide on a whim to sub in some of your fresh garden vegetables because you think it will taste better, you’re using a heuristic.

Decision-making tools for agile businesses

In this ebook, learn how to equip employees to make better decisions—so your business can pivot, adapt, and tackle challenges more effectively than your competition.

Make good choices, fast: How decision-making processes can help businesses stay agile ebook banner image

Common types of heuristics

Heuristics are everywhere, whether we notice them or not. There are hundreds of heuristics at play in the human brain, and they interact with one another constantly. To understand how these heuristics can help you, start by learning some of the more common types of heuristics:

Recognition heuristic

The recognition heuristic uses what we already know (or recognize) as a criterion for decisions. The concept is simple: When faced with two choices, you’re more likely to choose the item you recognize versus the one you don’t. 

This is the very base-level concept behind branding your business, and we see it in all well-known companies. Businesses develop a brand messaging strategy in the hopes that when you’re faced with buying their product or buying someone else's, you recognize their product, have a positive association with it, and choose that one. For example, if you’re going to grab a soda and there are two different cans in the fridge, one a Coca-Cola, and the other a soda you’ve never heard of, you are more likely to choose the Coca-Cola simply because you know the name.

Representativeness heuristic

The representativeness heuristic is when we try to assign an object to a specific category or idea based on past experiences. Oftentimes, this comes up when we meet people—our first impression. We expect certain things (such as clothing and credentials) to indicate that a person behaves or lives a certain way.

Without proper awareness, this heuristic can lead to discrimination in the workplace. For example, representativeness heuristics might lead us to believe that a job candidate from an Ivy League school is more qualified than one from a state university, even if their qualifications show us otherwise. This is because we expect Ivy League graduates to act a certain way, such as being more hard-working or intelligent. Of course in our rational brains, we know this isn’t the case. That’s why it’s important to be aware of this heuristic, so you can use logical thinking to combat potential biases.

Anchoring and adjustment heuristic

Used in finance for economic forecasting, anchoring and adjustment is when you start with an initial piece of information (the anchor) and continue adjusting until you reach an acceptable decision. The challenge is that sometimes, the anchor ends up not being a good enough value to begin with. In other words, you choose the anchor based on unknown biases and then make further decisions based on this faulty assumption.

Anchoring and adjustment is often used in pricing, especially with SaaS companies. For example, a displayed, three-tiered pricing model shows you how much you get for each price point. The layout is designed to make it look like you won’t get much for the lower price, and you don’t necessarily need the highest price, so you choose the mid-level option (the original target). The anchors are the low price (suggesting there’s not much value here) and the high price (which shows that you’re getting a “discount” if you choose another option). Thanks to those two anchors, you feel like you’re getting a lot of value no matter what you spend.

Affect heuristic

You know the advice, think with your heart? That’s the affect heuristic in action, where you make a decision based on what you’re feeling. Emotions are important ways to understand the world around us, but using them to make decisions is irrational, and can impact your work.

For example, let’s say you’re about to ask your boss for a promotion. As a product marketer, you’ve made a huge impact on the company by helping to build a community of enthusiastic, loyal customers. But the day before you have your performance review, you find out that a small project you led for a new product feature failed. You decide to skip the conversation asking for a raise, and instead double down on how you can improve.

In this example, you’re using the affect heuristic to base your entire performance on the failure of one small project—even though the rest of your performance (building that profitable community) is much more impactful than a new product feature. If you weighed the options rationally, you would see that asking for a raise is still a logical choice. But instead, the fear of asking for a raise after a failure felt like too big a trade-off.


Satisficing is when you accept an available option that’s satisfactory (i.e, just fine) instead of trying to find the best possible solution. In other words, you’re settling. This creates a “bounded rationality,” where you’re constrained by the choices that are good-enough, instead of pushing past the limits to discover more. This isn’t always negative—for lower-impact scenarios, it might not make sense to invest time and energy into finding the optimal choice. But, there are also times when this heuristic kicks in and you end up settling for less than what’s possible. 

For example, let’s say you’re a project manager planning the budget for the next fiscal year. Instead of looking at previous spend and revenue, you satisfice and base the budget off projections, assuming that will be good enough. But without factoring in historical data, your budget isn’t going to be as equipped to manage hiccups or unexpected changes. In this case, you can mitigate satisficing with a logically-based data review that, while longer, will produce a more accurate and thoughtful budget plan.

When heuristics lead to bias…

…how do you combat them? If you acknowledge your biases, you can usually undo them and maybe even use them to your advantage. There are ways you can hack heuristics, so that they work for you (not against you):

  • Be aware. Heuristics often operate like a knee-jerk reaction—they’re automatic. The more aware you are, the more you can identify and acknowledge the heuristic at play. From there, you can decide if it’s useful for the current situation, or if a logical decision-making process is best.

  • Flip the script. When you notice a negative bias, turn it around. For example, confirmation bias is when we look for things to be as we expect. So if we expect our boss to assign us more work than our colleagues, we might always experience our work tasks as unfair. Instead, turn this around by repeating that your boss has your team’s best interests at heart, and you know everyone is working hard. This will re-train your confirmation bias to look for all the ways that your boss is treating you just like everyone else. 

  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps to build self-awareness, so you know when heuristics are impacting your decisions. For example, when we tap into the empathy gap heuristic, we’re unable to empathize with someone else or a specific situation. However, if we’re mindful, we can be aware of how we’re feeling before we engage. This helps us to see that the judgment stems from our own emotions, and probably has nothing to do with the other person.

Read: The ladder of inference: How to avoid assumptions and make better decisions

Examples of heuristics in business

This is all well and good in theory, but how do heuristic decision-making and thought processes show up in the real world? One reason researchers have invested so much time and energy into learning about heuristics is so that they can use them, like in these scenarios:

How heuristics are used in marketing

Effective marketing does so much for a business—it attracts new customers, makes a brand a household name, and converts interest into sales, to name a few. One way marketing teams are able to accomplish all this is by applying heuristics.

Let’s use ambiguity aversion as an example. Ambiguity aversion means you're less likely to choose an item you don’t know. Marketing teams combat this by working to become familiar to their customers. This could include the social media team engaging in a more empathetic or conversational way, or employing technology like chat-bots to show that there’s always someone available to help. Making the business feel more approachable helps the customer feel like they know the brand personally—which lessens ambiguity aversion.

How heuristics are used in business strategy

Have you ever noticed how your CEO seems to know things before they happen? Or that the CFO listens more than they speak? These are indications that they understand people in a deeper way, and are able to engage with their employees and predict outcomes because of it. C-suite level executives are often experts in behavioral science, even if they didn’t study it. They tend to get what makes people tick, and know how to communicate based on these biases. In short, they use heuristics for higher-level decision-making processes and execution. 

This includes business strategy. For example, a startup CEO might be aware of their representativeness bias towards investors—they always look for the person in the room with the  fancy suit or car. But after years in the field, they know logically that this isn’t always true—plenty of their investors have shown up in shorts and sandals. Now, because they’re aware of their bias, they can build it into their investment strategy. Instead of only attending expensive, luxury events, they also attend conferences with like-minded individuals and network among peers. This approach can lead them to a greater variety of investors and more potential opportunities.

Learn heuristics, de-mystify your brain

Your brain doesn’t actually work in mysterious ways. In reality, researchers know why we do a lot of the things we do. Heuristics help us to understand the choices we make that don’t make much sense. Once you understand heuristics, you can also learn to use them to your advantage—both in business, and in life. 

Decision-making tools for agile businesses

In this ebook, learn how to equip employees to make better decisions—so your business can pivot, adapt, and tackle challenges more effectively than your competition.

Make good choices, fast: How decision-making processes can help businesses stay agile ebook banner image

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