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Scaffolding for Thought : Dealing With Heuristics

There are several well understood limitations on human thought, which we can develop tools and thinking frameworks to provide some mental scaffolding in order to help us access and thus better shape our thought process. In their groundbreaking partnership on the psychology of judgment and decision, cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and psychologist Daniel Kahneman unearthed limitations mental performance which they dubbed ‘heuristics’, as well as biases used in judgment under uncertainty – they are commonly also referred to as rules of thumb – basic mechanisms for making decisions without too much time or effort.

Their double biography, which I have been enjoying as audio book on my way to and from Southampton on many a train journey, is called “The Undoing Project” (Lewis, 2016) and paints quite a vivid picture of how they un-did millennia of assumptions by questioning the received perspectives and doing solid research to check their own interpretations. 

Heuristic

“‘serving to discover or find out,’ 1821, irregular formation from Greek heuriskein ‘to find; find out, discover; devise, invent’ get, gain, procure’” (Harper, etymonline.com)

( The choice of the term ‘heuristic’ seems a little odd, when looking at the earlier meaning but most people would not be familiar with the term and the earlier work by political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist Herbert Alexander Simon on ‘satisficing’, from satisfy and suffice. The term was introduced in 1956 but the concept introduced already in 1947 in his work Administrative Behavior (Herbert A. Simon, 1997) of which there is a current edition available. Satisficing is a term used for when we don’t have the opportunity, for whatever reason, such as lack of information, time or technique/education to fully analyse a situation to make the best possible judgement. )

Specific Tversky and Kahneman heuristics are worth going into further since I hope that liquid views can help overcome these heuristics when authoring a paper, by both making it more clear what comes to mind for the author and by quickly and easily allowing the user to gather the further information necessary.

Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on the most immediate examples that comes to mind when evaluating something, rather than taking advantage of more realistic, non-anecdotal evidence. It is as simple as using what comes to mind most readily to make a decision, not making the effort to gather further, more objective data – our decisions are based on what we are thinking about, not what we maybe should be thinking about.

Representativeness

This one I would simply call prejudice, where our understanding is based on aspects of the situation which conform to strong beliefs what represents what. This can lead to us ignoring the base rate (the probability of situations being this or that) based on our personal beliefs.

A specific representativeness issue is ignorance of sample size. If you know that a hospital has 50/50 boys or girls or so, yet on any given Sunday there may be more boys or girls born and thus the impression on someone who observes the hospital on just one day will not be statistically sound. 

Similarly, things which are random will at some point look like a pattern, to a human observer, if seen on a small enough scale. 

Anchoring is an amazing representativeness used by companies from restaurants to computer vendors: Set a high price for a main product and everything below that will then seem (relatively) cheaper.  

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