Each day we make hundreds of decisions and judgements. Should you take an umbrella? Can I believe that person? We seldom take the time or effort to reason systematically. We usually just follow our intuition. Throughout business, government and the educational worlds, “using an effective problem-solving approach almost doesn’t exist.” Then how are decisions made? “Mostly by the seat of their pants,” says social psychologist Irving Janis, 1986.

Analysis Is Paralysis

These mental shortcuts or simple strategies, called heuristics, often do help us make reasonable, seat-of-the-pants decisions. When quick decisions are needed, analysis can mean paralysis. As we apply these trial and error methods, we often rely on our mind’s automatic information processing ability. Intuitive judgements are instantaneous. Saving paralysis yes, but we often pay a high price for these efficient but bad judgements. Distorted heuristics can lead even the smartest people into dumb and costly decisions.


Two types of heuristics are generally applied according to two cognitive psychologists Amos Tuersky and Daniel Kahneman. They worked together on many statistical and intuitive thinking projects spanning a quarter of a century. Kahneman was unable to share the Nobel Prize in Economics with his friend. His landmark book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” explains how easily our brains are “bamboozled.”


The representativeness heuristic is judging the likelihood of things in terms of how well they seem to match particular prototypes. This may lead one to ignore other relevant information.


The availability heuristic operates when we base our judgements on how mentally available the information is. If the memory of an event is easily accessed, i.e., if it comes to mind quickly and with little effort, then we presume such events are common. The faster people can remember an instance, fact, or some event (“a broken promise”) the more they expect it to recur (MacLeod & Campbell, 1992).

Leading Us Astray

Why does the availability heuristic lead us astray? Many factors enable information to “pop into mind.” These include how recently you heard or read about it, its distinctiveness, and its concreteness. Therefore, an event or fact’s availability to our memory need not indicate the likelihood of its truth or reality.

The judgement errors influenced by the availability heuristic are not always harmful, but important decisions, even court judgements, are sometimes made in error.

To quote Francis Bacon, “the human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly. And by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated. It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind” (Novum Organum, 1620)

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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