According to Nobel Prize-winning economist and author Daniel Kahneman, we possess two “systems” for thinking: one that processes information very quickly, and one that does so more slowly and requires significantly more effort.
Here’s the thing: Most of us don’t really like to think all that hard. As humans, we rely on what comes to mind with the least amount of cognitive strain. We also don’t always act rationally — rarely going to the trouble of, say, doing the math or weighing the pros and cons of a decision.
But don’t be too hard on yourself: We act that way to survive in a post-modern world where the amount of information we are exposed to has grown exponentially, but the basic architecture of our brains hasn’t changed since the likes of Australopithecus africanus roamed the earth. We employ mental shortcuts to survive. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t.
Discovering Heuristics and Biases
Heuristics are supportive cognitive shortcuts that help us make good decisions in times of complexity. Biases, on the other hand, impede decision making. Sometimes, biases also are referred to as cognitive illusions, because much like an optical illusion, they twist our thinking about reality.
So how do we distinguish between the two? It’s often difficult to parse heuristics and biases, because the same factors that impact our thinking also impact our thinking about our thinking. For example, sometimes we fall prey to something called base-rate neglect. This is when we ignore statistics in favor of anecdotal incidents.
Heuristics and biases are built into our psychological makeup and are so pervasive that we rarely even notice them working inside our heads. Plus, they feel so natural, so how could they be wrong? If you make what turns out to be a good decision, you’ve just used a heuristic. If the decision results in a negative outcome, you’ve succumbed to mental bias. As one psychology student so aptly put it: “Heuristics are helpful biases. Biases are hurtful heuristics.”
Regardless of how you might categorize these mental patterns, understanding and labeling them will help you consider these cognitive processes more easily and create strategic persuasion campaigns based on them. They also will help your targets make better decisions.
Don’t worry about getting too hung up on trying to determine whether something is a heuristic or a bias. Simply concentrate on what these mental tendencies mean to you in terms of your persuasion efforts.