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5 More Decision Heuristics Everyone Should Know

Given the thousands of decisions we make every day, taking mental shortcuts is not only useful. It’s a necessity. Decision heuristics may be imperfect, intuitive ways to solve problems fast while disregarding potentially vital information. But they can also lead to better results compared to a lengthy process of logical reasoning. In my article about heuristic decision-making, I’ve explored this phenomenon alongside five mental shortcuts for quicker decision-making. Here are five additional heuristics that struck me as particularly noteworthy and practical.

1. Take-the-Best Heuristic

The Take-the-Best Heuristic is very similar to the Recognition Heuristic described in my previous article. It can help us make surprisingly accurate decisions when confronted with alternative choices. Instead of comparing their various attributes, a single factor makes a difference. Which German city is a better pick for a city trip? Berlin or Hannover?

Using the Take the Best Heuristic, we first think of attributes to compare the places. Both are cities. Both are located in Europe. But Berlin is Germany’s capital. Once that first distinguishing feature is found, we stop. We infer that the discriminating feature that came to our minds first (Berlin being Germany’s capital) will determine our decision. We pick whatever choice is best based on that one cue.

2. Indecision Heuristic

The Indecision Heuristic is yet another mental shortcut courtesy of angel investor Naval Ravikant. We can think of it as a variation of his advice to say No if we cannot decide:

If you’re evenly split on a difficult decision, take the path more painful in the short term.

This heuristic hinges on life’s open secret: Choose long-term over short-term. Even though short-term solutions tend to be more convenient you should think strategically to avoid ending up in what author Robert Greene calls tactical hell. Just think about the question of whether you should switch careers in your 30s.

Your current job seems like a dead end and is killing your soul. But switching careers will have you start at square one and earn less in the beginning. It may seem like a painful step back. However, following the Indecision Heuristic, it‘s a short-term sacrifice worth making if you’re struggling to make the call. Long-term-you will thank you.

3. Criticism Heuristic

Not all of our decisions throughout the day are immediately recognisable as such. Whether to accept or reject criticism from someone is probably one of them. Is the judgment warranted or misguided? Is it well-intended or in bad faith? Does that even matter?

Since being criticised can be as useful as it can be painful it triggers an immediate emotional response. This mechanism can be used to our advantage. In his book Skin in the Game, pugnacious essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb came up with a Criticism Heuristic:

When someone criticizes you, train to immediately ask yourself: “Would I rather be him/her, or I’d rather be me?” before taking the remark at face value. It works wonders.

It’s a great heuristic to short-circuit our emotional response as it forces us to pick a side. If at that moment, we prefer to be the person criticising, it probably means they have a point and we’re about to learn something new. If we prefer to be us, we can relax. Either way, we win.

4. Trial-and-Error Heuristic

The Trial-and-Error Heuristic is a common problem-solving approach we use on a daily basis. It’s best suited for simple problems. When learning new skills or playing games. Whenever we know there’s a right answer — and errors are not fatal.

Take puzzling games, for example. The Trial-and-Error Heuristic is much faster than studying all the pieces and calculating our odds until we can solve the puzzle in one go. Instead, we try out repeatedly where every single piece might fit. If it doesn’t fit, we try something else. If it does fit, we move on to the next piece.

With this decision heuristic, repeated practice is key. Yet, there’s no guarantee of success. If we continue to fail and rewards do not materialise, we lose interest. Plus, it’s not suitable in high-risk environments such as aviation. When your engines fail mid-air, you’d prefer structured decision-making tools such as DODAR over trial-and-error approaches.

5. Critical Thinking Heuristic

Suppose you did engage in a long rational truth-seeking process to make a choice. You’re pretty certain about your judgment. Still, you wonder if your final decision is the right one. You could go on researching, collecting more information, and doing more analysis. Or you could turn the whole process on its head.

What information would it take for you to change your mind?

I’ve covered this Critical Thinking Heuristic (aka Alexander’s Question) before, albeit in a different context as part of my essay on how to ask good questions. It prompts people to consider that they’re wrong and find new perspectives. However, the question is similarly useful when we use it on ourselves as a decision heuristic.

Given the thousands of decisions we make every day, Alexander’s Question instils a bit of humility, too. No decision is perfect. So we might as well make our choice and see what happens.

BONUS: Peak-End Heuristic

Can you change the past? Well, your brain can. The Peak–End Heuristic says that we don’t remember every minute detail of past experiences. When evaluating them, we tend to remember the most emotional and intense moments (the peaks) as well as how they ended. This applies to both positive and negative moments.

That last family holiday, in a few years you won’t remember half of it. When thinking back, though, you may only recall that smile on your son’s face when he caught his first fish. And maybe how happy you all were in the end about how the whole trip went. Careful, though. Like most mental shortcuts, the Peak-End Heuristic can also be a bias.

Closing Thoughts

Decision heuristics offer advantages by simplifying complex choices, allowing for quick and efficient decision-making. They can help us make reasonably accurate decisions in fast-paced environments. Heuristics are not flawless. But can prove valuable for navigating information overload and enhancing decision-making efficiency when you don’t have the time for more time-consuming methods such as Structured Analytic Techniques.