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Intellectual Shortcuts

You do not totally control your brain. It develops its own methods of processing information, with or without your approval.

Your brain often uses shortcuts and rules of thumb to process information more easily. “Rules of thumb” are useful principles which have a wide application, but are not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable in every situation.

These rules of thumb, or heuristics, can be useful tools. But they also can impair your judgment. It is important to recognize these heuristics so that they do not dominate your thinking.

There are three types of heuristics that may shape the way your brain approaches problems:

1. The availability heuristic — Psychologists define the availability heuristic as the tendency to most easily recall those events that are the most available or vivid in our memories.

2. The representativeness heuristic — This heuristic is a mental shortcut in which people classify something according to how similar it is to a typical instance.

In other words, you use the representativeness heuristic when you judge probabilities by the degree to which A is representative of, or resembles, B. According to this process, if something walks and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

3. The anchoring heuristic — Anchoring is a mental shortcut in which you use a certain idea as a starting point and adjust your perception of the new event away from that anchor.

So, for example, if your friend earns 15,000 dollars a year as a mechanic, you will consider any mechanic that earns 20,000 dollars a year as being well paid.

Although rules of thumb are necessary to reduce the time and effort needed to make decisions, some of these heuristics can negatively affect your judgment by luring you into false starting positions. (Read more on