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Heuristics and its Flipside

“To err is human”, said Alexander Pope, the English writer, in one of his epic writings of the early 18th century. In times, when theology was the only lens that the world was perceived, a spark of socio-political discourse through satirical and discursive writings. From Pope’s poem named ‘An Essay on Criticism’ came the lines –

“Ah, ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast, Nor in the critic let the man be lost!

Good-nature and good-sense must ever join; to err is human; to forgive, divine”.

Through these lines, he delineated pride, critique, error and forgiveness as geniuses of human nature. He noted that one mustn’t cast one’s own assumptions in their process of critical thinking. Because in doing so, we would lose the overarching essential objective of logic. And for that purpose, he said, we must accompany critique with good intellect and nature. Pope also attempts to nudge individuals towards forgiveness and God, explaining that making mistakes is inherently a human quality. Also, one’s acceptance of this fallacy is of utmost importance for understanding oneself.

Those words still hold considerable influence in today’s world, although somewhat forgotten and buried in the arid sands of individual perceptivity. With relation to the previous post regarding our biases, this article extends its implications and underlies another psychological concept called heuristics. As a shortcut technique of the brain, heuristics are made use of to aid us in quick decision making and judgement formation or predictions. They have experientially learned techniques that over time become almost natural and act as a guide to our behaviours in efficient ways. They help us in filling the missing gaps of information for problem-solving, and to reduce time and cognitive load for everyday decision making- implying intuitive reasoning. Heuristics can be an effective method as a rule of thumb to which one abides or adapts to, but can also be just as harmful and invalid to base judgements and conclusions on.

To crystallize the concept lets look at the following example; you enter a grocery shop with an intent to buy a box of yoghurt. However, since you’re not a nutritionist, so you don’t necessarily prefer the one with most nutritional value. Therefore you go with the name of the brand you are familiar with or have seen advertisements about. This familiarity is readily available information that comes to mind when making decisions that involve a degree of judgement. It ensures the ‘familiarity heuristic’ through which we are inclined to prefer objects, situations, places and even people that we are familiar with, over the strange, unknown and uncertain. Just as one’s preference for visiting Google every time they want to search for something instead of other search engines like Yahoo or Bing. This is understandable because people feel a certain way about familiarity, an idea that brings a notable sense of ease, safety and well-being in context. However, intimacy isn’t always the best criteria to base assumptions and decisions on, for there are factors within familiarity that hinder the process of growth and exploration.

Let’s look at a different but more common kind of a heuristic, the practice of stereotyping- a process employing which we unfairly and often unconsciously categorize people according to their characteristics. These characteristics could be specific and innate to a group such as their race, gender, attributes, sexual orientation, colour, caste, culture, etc. While we overgeneralize our beliefs about them, we also create expectations about them in our heads. Remember when people thought women can only work the kitchen and not the wrestling grounds or corporates? Or when Indians couldn’t speak good English? Or Muslims are all terrorists? Or when both genders are only heterosexuals? Such predetermined judgements are nothing short of errors and abomination, yet we somehow still choose to follow them. Even though they may be true, more often than not, they are always conceived to bridge gaps of unknown information. By virtue then makes stereotyping susceptible to erroneous patterns of thinking and decision making.

We’re all probably aware of these heuristics on some level. Still, we don’t consciously delve into our own rules of thumbs, just as we don’t actively investigate our own beliefs and reasoning of actions. Most people would prefer processing information or choosing something that entails an easy understanding rather than one that is difficult to comprehend. This in itself is another mental shortcut that experts have labelled as ‘fluency heuristic’. It implies that when multiple options are available, we tend to choose the one which is easily understood over the others that aren’t. Even if the easy answer was wrong and the problem solution, right. Imagine if we faced the choice of making a decision at the moment, and making a deliberation of that decision later on. We’re more inclined to make the decision and not come back to it rather than deliberating the processes of that decision to our own inner self. Another example of fluency heuristic is the excerpt from Alexander Pope’s poem, as mentioned earlier. At the first read, those lines seem intensely literary and grasping it in its essence may have been difficult. However, a light-hearted interpretation of it may seem to make better sense. Thus we stick with that easy comprehension rather than the formal one, even if my understanding may not have done justice to his writing.

Over time these mental shortcuts become repetitive and automatic in nature. Following which our preferences, beliefs and actions get somewhat derivative and deluded, leading to more mistakes, risky decisions and poor judgements. Therefore we must think of those words by Alexander Pope often, for it is true that making errors is characteristically human. Only if we can acknowledge that, can we indeed raise our self-awareness in an attempt to better understand our behaviours, beliefs and that of the worlds around us?

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