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25 August 2021

heuristics: how our brains make decisions for us.

When making decisions quickly, your brain is the pilot and, you're just the co-pilot.

Decisions. We make hundreds of them every day. From which cereal to eat for breakfast to deciding what to wear for work, you are constantly making decisions about the world around you, and sometimes it can get a little overwhelming. So how does your brain make the decision-making process easier? With tools called heuristics.

It's not about making a perfect judgement; it's about making one quickly
Heuristics are cognitive tools or mental shortcuts that help us make quick and efficient decisions about the world around us. Heuristic models are based on our past experiences, educated guesses, intuition, and common sense, which act as shortcuts to help us arrive at a solution more quickly. Without them, we’d spend all day deliberating over every one of the decisions we make, and life would be painfully tedious.

Reducing Decision Fatigue
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is well known for wearing the same clothes to work every day: a grey t-shirt, a hoodie and jeans. In 2014 he said on the topic, "I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community." And he's not the only business leader who has opted to wear the same "uniform" to work every day.

During his presidency, Barack Obama wore only grey or blue suits to "pare down decisions" because of the other major decisions he had to make as president each day. But you don't have to be a multi-billion dollar business owner or the president of a country to suffer from decision fatigue. It affects us all, especially as consumers.

Heuristics and Buying Behaviour
Just as heuristics affect your judgement about the world around you, they also play a significant role in your buying behaviour. Consumers today are oversaturated with an offering of brands, products and services, making buying the “right” thing a sometimes challenging and overwhelming task. That’s where heuristics come in.

Think back to the last purchase you made. What made you buy it? How long did you stand in the store, considering which brand to buy? Or did you pick the same cheese that went great with dinner last time because it was a familiar choice?

This is because familiarity heuristics increase the likelihood of purchasing products from the same brand based on your past buying behaviour. You already know the outcome of the decision – like how salty the cheese is or how satisfied you feel after eating your favourite chocolate bar – alleviating you from the stress, time and energy spent on arriving at a seemingly easy decision.

How Heuristics Affect Us in Our Daily Lives
The Self-Confirmation Heuristic tells us to view information as credible only if it confirms our existing beliefs, regardless of how well-argued or researched the opposing information is. Unfortunately, this heuristic often leads to confirmation bias, which impacts how we gather and interpret information. For example, if you don't believe in global warming, you might not seek information that proves that global warming is real, enabling you to stay clear of facts that could otherwise persuade your belief.

Another heuristic is the Exposure Effect or the Familiarity Principle. This phenomenon suggests that people develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In other words, the more we're exposed to something, the more we tend to like it. This heuristic tends to work exceptionally well as a marketing tool, with marketers repeatedly showing TV ads to persuade consumers to develop a preference for their product just because they are familiar with it.

When making decisions about the future, we tend to use information that comes to mind quickly, vividly and easily. Availability heuristics suggest that singular, memorable moments have an outsized influence on decisions about the future. Let's say you are considering either John or Jane for a promotion at work. Both have a steady employment record. However, in Jane's first year, she accidentally deleted a company project when her computer crashed. The vivid memory of Jane deleting that project is likely to heavily influence your decision to promote John over Jane more than it should.

When making decisions, like what to wear or what products to buy, your brain uses heuristics to pilot your decision-making process. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us avoid indecision and make quick and efficient decisions about the world around us. Without heuristics, we'd spend all day deliberating over every one of the decisions we make, resulting in decision fatigue and a painfully tedious life.
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