Heuristics and bias: you make errors in judgement on a regular basis

Note: This research is part of a series of assignments for Cognitive Psychology, part of my MSc in Psychology.

People make decisions based on past experiences and learning by using shortcuts or “rules of thumb” to reach the correct conclusion and take action. These shortcuts are called heuristics, and they play an essential role in problem-solving and decision-making (Goldstein, p. 405, 2018). Heuristics and our limited capacity to process all information directed at us daily cause systematic errors called cognitive biases (Shiraev & Levy, 2016). 

Note: Heuristics and biases were brought to light in 1974 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; presented in the video representativeness heuristic (people overestimate similarities with previous knowledge of beliefs to predict an event), the availability heuristic (people judge as more probable things that are easily retrieved from memory), anchoring heuristic (people rely too heavily on a reference point).  From Intermittent Diversion. (2018, June 8). Kahneman and Tversky: How heuristics impact our judgment [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IjIVD-KYF4. Accessed on July 7, 2021.

Heuristics and biases may affect our basic decisions, such as the ‘price heuristic’ where we consider more expensive products to have a higher quality (Dale, 2015). However, these judgement errors can have more severe consequences: judges’ decisions are influenced by such biases as confirmation bias (favouring information that fits your beliefs and dismissing the evidence to the contrary), hindsight bias (considering an event as more predictable after it happened), or conjugation fallacy (if an event is described in more detail, it has higher probability) (Peer & Gamliel, 2013).

Figure 1. Examples of heuristics and biases


Note: A list of heuristics and biases and their definitions. Reprinted from Cognitive Psychology (p. 410), by E. B. Goldstein, & J. C. Van Hoof, 2018, Cengage Learning EMEA.

Heuristics can have a positive impact on decision-making, being surprisingly accurate, transparent and widely accessible. Heuristics can also improve decision-making accuracy for patients and physicians, where making a diagnosis based on predefined patterns supports better decision-making (Marewski & Gigerenzer, 2012), however possibly causes errors in clinical reasoning (Elstein, 1999). However, the likelihood of these errors decreases with the increase in the medical expertise of the physicians, without confirming the extent to which cognitive bias contributes to making these errors, which can also be caused by a knowledge deficit (Norman et al., 2017). 

Note: Cognitive biases in medical decision making: confirmation bias; availability bias; Semmelweis Reflex (tendency to reject a new idea as it doesn’t fit into an existing paradigm); Maslow’s hammer (when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail); Deformation Professionnelle – job conditioning (the bias states that we are conditioned to look at certain things in a certain way, because of our profession). From Clinical Information Sciences. (2016, June 22). Making Medical Decisions Better: Cognitive biases in medicine [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiiUlsq7qIo. Accessed on July 7, 2021.

Even though heuristics are helpful to find quick solutions and manage the high amount of information that we are exposed to, they can also impact creativity (Dale, 2015). Therefore, further research should look into strategies to overcome heuristics and biases, alongside strategies of reorganisation of knowledge, which supports better decision-making and fewer errors of judgement (Norman et al., 2017).


Dale, S. (2015, June 1). Heuristics and biases: The science of decision-making. Business Information Review. SAGE Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266382115592536

Elstein, A. S. (1999). Heuristics and biases: Selected errors in clinical reasoning. Academic Medicine, 74(7), 791–794. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001888-199907000-00012

Goldstein, E., B., van Hooff, J. C. (2018), Cognitive Psychology, Cengage Learning EMEA. 

Marewski, J. N., & Gigerenzer, G. (2012). Heuristic decision making in medicine. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience14(1), 77–89. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2012.14.1/jmarewski   

Norman, G. R., Monteiro, S. D., Sherbino, J., Ilgen, J. S., Schmidt, H. G., & Mamede, S. (2017, January 1). The Causes of Errors in Clinical Reasoning: Cognitive Biases, Knowledge Deficits, and Dual Process Thinking. Academic Medicine. Wolters Kluwer N.V. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000001421  

Peer, E., & Gamliel, E. (2013). Heuristics and Biases in Judicial Decisions. Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association. 422. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ajacourtreview/422 

Shiraev, E. B., & Levy, D. A. (2016). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications. Taylor & Francis.

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