Social Psychology Glossary (10): Heuristics

Welcome to the Social Psychology Glossary!

In these posts, I explain Social Psychology terms and theories and add some examples from research.

These terms and theories help social psychologists understand how people perceive others, interact with them, and make judgments about the social world and its members. These psychological processes can impact well-being and decision-making: being aware of their existence is a key factor that helps individuals and society to move towards gender diversity, gender equality, and equality in general.

Today we will explain what Heuristics are.


Alex is from the U.S., and Alex is very shy and quiet. What do you think Alex does for a living: librarian or salesperson?

As you might have guessed, this question is tricky. A wise choice might be to admit that we do not know. But let’s pretend that we want to give Alex a present to celebrate their new job, and we are sure the job is either librarian or salesperson. But which one, exactly?

We remember that Alex is shy and quiet, which is not enough information. We need a strategy to make a decision anyway. For example, we can convince ourselves that Alex has been employed as a librarian because being shy and quiet are stereotypes often associated with librarians. Alex seems representative of librarians, so we give them a reading journal as a present. This type of reasoning is typical of the Representation Heuristic.

Heuristics are fast strategies we use to solve problems. We sometimes need them in our daily lives, because it is impossible to reason thoroughly over everything. Heuristics do not need much cognitive energy. For example, we thought that Alex’s personality was similar to the prototype of a librarian, and we based our decision on that. Heuristics, however, do not grant the right solution and they sometimes overlook other relevant information. For example, in the U.S. there are more salespeople than librarians, so it would be more likely that someone – including Alex – were a salesperson, not a librarian. 

We talked about the Representation Heuristic, but there are many types of heuristics. For example, psychologists have identified the Availability Heuristics. This is a strategy we use when we want to know the frequency of an event, and we try to recollect it from our memory and knowledge (e.g., from media and news). The easier it is to recollect an event, the more frequent we consider it to happen. On the contrary, the more difficult it is to remember an event, the less frequent we think it is. For example, death in severe incidents reported by the media (i.e., plane crashes) might be considered more frequent than other incidents that are not as covered by the media (i.e., car crashes). Sadly, deaths in car crashes are statistically more frequent than deaths in plane crashes.

Heuristics simplify our reasoning processes, and they give us a potential solution, even when we have partial information. However, heuristics are not always correct. One of the downfalls of using heuristics is that they can lead to stereotyping, like in the previous example with Alex (who is starting a job as salesperson next week, thank you very much). When we use heuristics, we are not always aware of doing so. We can only try and discern our bugged reasoning strategies and, if we ever use them, take accountability for that.

I hope these posts explained something interesting, and maybe made you a little curious about Social Psychology concepts. Unfortunately, this post was the last entry of the Social Psychology Glossary. Hope you have enjoyed the journey, and wish you all the best, dear readers of the Solutions-Blog!

Suggested Readings:

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1973). On the psychology of prediction. Psychological Review, 80(4), 237.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases: Biases in judgments reveal some heuristics of thinking under uncertainty. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131.

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