General Psychology

Heuristics and Shortcuts

Short Cut

Heuristics: Why Humans Rely on These Cognitive Shortuts

Heuristics could be called one of the foundational cornerstones of inferred judgment and problem solving. In fact, research has revealed that judgment requires heuristic strategies to help people make decisions and adapt rapidly (Fiske & Taylor, 2021). Heuristic domain is defined as the reduction of extraneous load through employment of examples, the maximization of germane load through self-explanation, the prevention of cognitive overload through the pretraining of difficult learning materials, and the focus of attention on more relevant, cognitive aspects (Renkl et al., 2009). In other words, the mind works to find shortcuts to cognitive processes which help speed up mental processing power. Illusory correlation is the mind’s potential ability to perceive relationships of a covariant nature between infrequent traits or characteristics and infrequent classes of people without any real basis or preexisting correlation (Smith & Alpert, 2007). This can result in an overestimation or underestimation of behavior or details in terms of association or stereotype formation (2007). The basic concept is that an individual can create preconceived relationships between various variables which may or may not exist.

              While it may be difficult to modify the tendency to develop heuristics, or illusory correlation, it is necessary to understand the value in either modification.  An improvement to heuristics may mean better understanding problems, as well as resolving them. A reduction to illusory correlation could mean less stereotyping.  Alternatively, an increase in this facet could lead to stronger and faster decision making.  It could be said that the right moderation of both concepts could lead to ultimate balance. For example, covariation can create highly useful estimates which are based solely upon previous experiences and expectations (Fiske & Taylor, 2021). More data can increase one’s cognitive accuracy, however, less data can increase one’s covariance. This is achieved utilizing a variety of skills including but not limited to detecting relevance, sampling, and combining information. Temporal factors are also worth mentioning, as it has been proven that more present rewards will typically outweigh future, distant rewards in value (2021).

              Implicit social cognition could be defined as one’s ability to cognitively perceive an array of social constructs without conscious awareness (Nosek et al., 2011). Some of these constructs include elements such as attitude, stereotyping, and self-concept (2011). These unconscious influences could have a great deal of bearing over social interaction and some of the resulting consequences of these interactions may be significant. For example, social interactions may subconsciously alter one’s self-concept, leading to a dramatic alteration to behavior and decision-making. Other social interactions may lead to a greater susceptibility to dangerous stereotyping. Understanding these constructs and consequences as a subconscious process could mean identifying them as heuristic shortcuts that help the brain adapt to the situations and environment around it. Whether decision making is conscious or subconscious, it is most certainly true that humans often find themselves in positions which require judgment between truth or falsehood, probability and improbability, and desirable versus undesirable (Dunning, 2012).

              Ultimately, there is a lot of substance within the concept of heuristics and illusory correlation. These ideas help explain under-the-surface decision making and judgment.  There are strong benefits to having a well-working heuristic system as well as dangers which should be avoided if possible. Oftentimes, however, these processes are largely subconscious and employed by the brain to speed up how the brain relates various elements and determines motivation and conclusions. Without heuristics, it would be very difficult for human beings to make some of the necessary leaps which pave new ground and develop new solutions.


Dunning, D., (2012). Judgment and decision making, In S. T. Fiske, & C. N. Macrae The SAGE handbook of social cognition, SAGE Publications Ltd, 251-272. DOI:

Fiske, S., & Taylor, S. E. (2021). Social cognition: From brains to culture (4th.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. ISBN: 9781529702088.

Nosek, B., Hawkins, C., and Frazier, R., (2011). Implicit social cognition: from measures to mechanisms, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(4), 152-159. DOI:

Renkl, A., Hilbert, T., and Schworm, S., (2009). Example-Based Learning in Heuristic Domains: A Cognitive Load Theory Account, Educ Psychol Rev, 21, 67–78. DOI:

Smith, M., Alpert, G., (2007). A Theory of Social Conditioning and Illusory Correlation, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(1), 1262-1283. DOI: 10.1177/0093854807304484

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