In psychological terms, a heuristic is a sort of mental rule or guide that helps us accomplish tasks or solve problems based on prior experience rather than purely on reason. For example, if you have ever driven away from your home without a clear memory of having locked your front door, it is probably because on your way out your ‘door locking’ heuristic kicked in and so you did not have to make a conscious (and hence memorable) effort to lock your door.
Science writer Wray Herbert has written a new book on the various cognitive biases that result from heuristics. The Huffington Post recently published a short article by Herbert in which he describes his notion of the ‘heuristic mind,’ which he argues is “automatic and often irrational”:
This irrationality can be quirky and entertaining, and I offer many examples of this in the book. But all too often — as with this skiing tragedy — our quirkiness crosses the line into what can only be called perversion. We make self-destructive decisions when we should know better; we choose options that are (seemingly) designed to sabotage our hopes and end up in failure and unhappiness.
One of the powerful, deep-seated cognitive biases that doomed Carruthers is called the “familiarity heuristic.” What this means, simply, is that we all favor the familiar over the strange. Things that are unfamiliar or foreign — people, places, ideas — may carry unknown risks, so on a gut level we equate familiarity with safety and well-being. Indeed, the familiarity heuristic is one of the most potent cognitive biases at work in the mind, and much of the time this bias serves us well. But not all the time, and there’s the rub.