We need to talk about heuristics

Things move fast. We don’t always have time to stop and think. And sometimes we need to just make a decision and move on. Preferably without worrying for days afterwards that we did the wrong thing. So how do we make good decisions in a hurry?

Quite simply, we take a mental short-cut. We apply a pre-determined ‘rule of thumb’ that looks at the essentials of the situation and tells us what to do. It’s called heuristics. And it’s one of those things we all do, probably without realising it.

A few years ago, the fire service ran a series of television adverts telling people what to do in the event of a house fire. The message was simple: “Get out. Get us out. Stay out.” It was the perfect heuristic. The critical mental short-cut for when the smoke alarm goes off at 2am and you wake to a room filled with smoke. And it has undoubtedly saved lives.

You’ll probably be able to think of other heuristics from everyday like. Stop, look, listen. Always close the gate behind you. No more than three clicks to get to something on a website. The ten-second rule for eating something that’s fallen on the floor. Never play cards with a man called Doc.

Heuristics work best when we need to make rapid decisions, but have at least some information to go on. This is because we’re essentially relating the current situation to something we’ve experienced in the past. They won’t necessarily allow us to make the best decisions, but rather something that will do the job.

We use them as a substitute for thinking, when we don’t have time to think.

Heuristics can play a valuable role in organisational decision-making, too. Because we can use our knowledge of what has worked well in the past to inform how we make decisions about the future. We can develop evidence-based rules of thumb that remove the need for detailed analysis and speed-up the decision-making process.

Imagine, for example, that you’re working in a university and are responsible for deciding which courses will continue and which will be axed. You could do a financial appraisal of each one, to determine whether or not it’s financially viable. But that’ll take time. And you don’t have all the data.

Alternatively, you could look at a small selection of courses and work out, on average, how many students they each need in order to break even. Let’s say it’s twenty. This could give you a rule of thumb: Any course with fewer than twenty enrolled students will only continue if there’s a really good reason.

Heuristics aren’t infallible, of course. We need to apply the right one to the right situation. And even then, we can’t guarantee that we won’t do the wrong thing. But a well thought-through rule of thumb can save valuable time that would otherwise be spent on analysis, procrastination or just worrying.

And when we have to make a decision in a hurry, it’s exactly this kind of mental short-cut that we need.

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