Graeme Newell

Heuristics Definition

Thinking is very expensive. Our brain uses a whopping 20% of our body’s calories. Because our caveman ancestors regularly faced starvation, evolution optimized our brain to get the maximum thinking while using the absolute fewest calories.

One of the most powerful ways it does this is by using something called HEURISTICS. These are BRAIN SHORTCUTS that rely on stereotyping and generalization to efficiently categorize our world. Heuristics shortening decision-making time.

For example, most ice cream tastes really good. I don’t need to sample each flavor in the grocery store freezer to know that I’ll probably enjoy eating most all of them. Heuristics do a bang-up job helping us make countless quick decisions all day long. For example, we stay away from bugs because they bite and sting.

But here’s the difficult part – heuristics are optimized for SPEED and EFFICIENCY, not for ACCURACY. The truth is that most bugs don’t bite or sting, but because SOME do, we stay away from ALL of them. Our generalization about bugs isn’t really that accurate, but it’s good enough to keep us safe.

When our brain is cranking out heuristics, it doesn’t usually stop to reconsider. Instead, it tends to make the best decision possible, based upon limited information. Then it quickly moves on. Your super-efficient brain is very okay with a substantial percentage of those heuristics being WRONG.

This is a perfectly fine system for most of the decisions in our lives. If we get someone’s name wrong or mispronounce a word, it’s no big deal. But the unfortunate thing is that your brain tends to follow this same efficiency-prioritized plan when it makes big important decisions as well. This is where heuristics can really trip us up.

So next time you’re making an important decision, remember that choice is being made by a brain that was optimized to avoid starvation, not by a brain designed to carefully analyze each option and make a fully informed decision. 

Slow down. Come at the problem from a different vantage point. Revisit the decision over and over again. Important decisions should be made in SLOW MOTION.