Brains Taking the Path of Least Resistance

The mind is a wondrous thing. Faster than a mighty computer, we size up situations and take action in nanoseconds. “I went with my gut,” we say. But what is actually happening in our mind when those super-fast decisions and judgments are made? We’ve turned our mental reasoning over to a mental device called a “heuristic.” Heuristics equal mental biases.

According to Herbert, scientists have discovered hundreds of heuristics used by our brains. Based on the brain’s tendency to like to stick to known pathways, heuristics make decisions easier. Scientists have been studying those quick mental calculations and have found they work both to our benefit and our detriment.

Types of Heuristics

One heuristic is called the “familiarity heuristic.” We do what we have always tended to do. Another, the “acceptance heuristic” leads us to make choices that will draw the attention of others. Why are things like white asparagus and flawless diamonds so valuable? The “scarcity heuristic” explains that we assign value to that which is rare. Some heuristics lead to distortions of reality. For instance, when we use “hindsight bias” we believe that whatever just occurred was inevitable without really investigating other possible outcomes.

Some heuristics have to do with how we interact with others. When we unconsciously find ourselves using the same gestures or tones as someone near us, we are using the “mimicry heuristic”. It is this instinctive built-in tendency that make marching in-step or cooperating on a mastodon hunt possible. The tendency to begin to react as others around us react, or synchrony, may help explain group cohesion or breakdown.

How is a Heuristic Device Formed?

Some heuristics come from early experiences. These “visceral heuristics” link things like being cold as an infant because no one is holding us to being alone. That linkage persists into adulthood with “cold and lonely” being a familiar concept to us all. The “negativity bias” states that humans have learned to pay attention to bad things, like snakes and poison plants, in order to survive, but that leads us to dwell on the negative in general. Other heuristic devices are passed along and reinforced by culture. Our sayings often reveal a hidden heuristic device. “There’s no place like home” reinforces the familiarity heuristic, for example.

The “caricature heuristic” is the way our brain quickly classifies an event or a person. As the name implies, it can be devastating if employed in a courtroom, but useful if employed by a diagnostician like a physician who is attempting to diagnose diseases that tend to occur more frequently in some populations. A stereotype occurs because it has been a useful way to categorize information. A seventy year old woman is more likely to suffer from dementia or breast cancer than a thirty year old man.

Heuristics and Dual Neural Pathways

Our first mental attempt at problem solving is to rely on an intuitive heuristic device. If that is not satisfactory, that response must be shut down so we can process the information more logically. Brain scans performed while people ponder problems indicate that using a heuristic device triggers different neural pathways than using more analytical approaches.

The Economics of Heuristics

Research indicates that something as simple as changing the font from one that is easily read to one that is less familiar will change our responses. Simple fonts yield quicker, more heuristic, responses. This is the type of information that marketers use to persuade us to buy things. Whether or not an instinctual response is good or bad might depend on what side of the cash register you occupy.

American Scientist published an article by Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman on the irrationality of our heuristics or our intuitive decision making. Heuristic devices he investigated, such as “nonextensional thinking” led study participants to estimate that the likelihood of having a flood where 1000 people drowned was higher in earthquake prone California than the likelihood of a flood where 1000 people drowned occurring in the United States. Context affects heuristic, quick, instinctual decisions. Slowing down decision making leads to fewer such errors. The mention of an earthquake “primed” the test subjects to think of California as a dangerous place.

This priming can be used to affect our spending habits. Research has found that people tend to ignore statistics, paying more attention to the phrase “ten of one hundred” than to “ten percent.” Similarly, when primed with small values, a sense of saving money is triggered. So, for “pennies a day” we can purchase a wide variety of goods. Our intuition leads us to make poor financial decisions when examined analytically. Conjuring up a sense of scarcity is a fast way to increase the value we place on something. Using the “anchor” heuristic, we begin to think that things are valued around a price we have heard mentioned, even if it is fabricated from thin air. A higher price on a nearby item makes the lower priced item next to it seem like a steal. Holiday shoppers beware!

In general, using brain short cuts helped the human species adapt and survive. Our thinking could be quicker and more efficient, even if it was, at times, not precisely logical. In today’s numerically filled, complex world, slowing down our thoughts and challenging our “gut instinct” makes sense. It may even save us “pennies a day!”


De Ney, W & Goel V. (in press). Heuristics and biases in the brain: Dual neural pathways for decision making. In O. Vartarin & D.R. Mandel (Eds.) Neuroscience of Decision Making. Hove, UK; Psychology Press.

Herbert, W. On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hardwired Habits. New York; Random House, 2010.

Kahneman, D. A Perspective on Judgment and Choice: Mapping Bounded Rationality. American Scientist, September 2003.

This article was originally published November 13, 2010 on Suite (link.)

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