Heuristics and How We Really Make Decisions


You will completely change your influence, once you understand heuristics. They are a large topic covered in SWAY; The Link Between Autism and Influence.


A huge portion of potential influencers spend mountains of time finessing their message, campaign or product, and less time developing the personality of the influencer or messenger. This is a huge mistake. That the message, campaign or product has to be high-quality and good for the audience should be a given. But focusing on small details around the product or message is a mistake if the messenger doesn’t resonate with the audience because of  little known psychological quirks called heuristics.

In the incredible book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he unequivocally proved that the personality of the messenger is not only pivotal, but actually has more to do with influence than the messages themselves.Gladwell described the real reasons doctors are sued for medical malpractice. And it has much less to do with medical malpractice than we think.


Gladwell writes, “The overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. Patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care  – and something else happens to them.”

He continues,

-Recently the medical researcher Wendy Levinson recorded hundreds of conversations between a group of physicians and their patients. Roughly half of the doctors had never been sued. The other half had been sued at least twice, and Levinson found that just on the basis of those conversations, she could find clear differences between the two groups.

Medicine or Bedside Manner?

The surgeons who had never been sued spent more than three minutes longer with each patient than those who had been sued did (18.3 minutes versus 15 minutes). They were more likely to make “orienting” comments, such as “First I’ll examine you, and then we will talk the problem over” or “I will leave time for your questions” – which help patients get a sense of what the visit is supposed to accomplish and when they ought to ask questions. They were more likely to engage in active listening, saying things such as “Go on, tell me more about that,” and they were far more likely to laugh and be funny during the visit.”

Interestingly, there was no difference in the amount or quality of information they gave their patients; they didn’t provide more details about medication or the patient’s condition. The difference was entirely in how they talked to their patients.-

In a nutshell, the personality of the doctors determined if the patient would sue them for medical malpractice, not the quality of care. Gladwell goes on to explain situations where patients wanted to sue because they felt they were given inadequate care. But when they realized the suit would hurt the people in the office whom they liked, they chose not to continue. 


This is the power of personality. It is a measuring stick by which most of us gauge the degree of influence we allow someone to have in our lives. We do not accurately evaluate every decision, purchase or vote and come up with rational choices. The personality of the influencer is what researchers call a heuristic, in the context of influence. Heuristics are gauges, or rules of thumb that we have gathered to make processing information easier, and often they are very often wrong.

In Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, he explains some of these mistakes in practical, real life, economical examples. He explains that a man who suffers from hay fever mows his own lawn. When asked why he doesn’t hire a kid from the neighborhood to mow the lawn for $10 the man says it isn’t worth it. In other words he would rather save $10 by mowing a lawn and suffering through the hay fever.

Loss Aversion

So, in logical, analog terms, hay fever is worth $10 to that man. But when he is asked if he would mow a different lawn of roughly the same size for $20 the man says absolutely not. This thinking is irrational. If hay fever is worth $10 to the man then it should definitely be worth $20.

But the man is reacting to a heuristic that behavioral analysts call loss aversion. As a rule we over-value what we already have to very inaccurate results. The man with hay fever is valuing the $10 he is saving more than the $20 he would earn mowing the other lawn.

Loss aversion is an example of an irrational heuristic that influences most people. But these heuristics, irrational or not, are usually the guardrails of our decisions. They offer us the ability to make decisions in multiple contexts.

Two Cord Puzzle

In 1931 a psychologist named Norman Maier found one heuristic during a very simple experiment. Maier was interested in understanding how people solve problems. He devised a puzzle that has since become known as the “two cord puzzle”. Maier hung two cords from the ceiling of his lab. The cords were far enough apart that people could not grab each at the same time. Then he asked people to come up with ways to tie the two ends of the cords together.

A Solution

Most participants came up with solutions that involved using the items in the lab to reach one cord while holding the other. Extension cords were tied to the end of the ropes, poles were used to hook the end and pull the two cords together and other miscellaneous solutions were created. But Maier had another solution in mind. He wanted to see how long it took people to come up with his solution. So he continued asking the participants to come up with new ways to solve the puzzle, until they ran out of ideas.

The Right Solution

Maier was looking for the participants to swing one rope in a pendulum fashion. Then they could grab the other rope and catch the swinging rope when it came towards them. Very few participants worked out this solution, until they were given a seemingly accidental clue.

During the experiment, Maier would walk around the lab until, when people had run out of ideas, he would brush against one of the ropes and set it swinging motion. Most people would arrive at Maiers solution, after seeing the swinging rope.This experiment showed how easily we can be nudged with a solution to a problem without realizing it.

But that wasn’t the interesting part.

The fascinating part came after the experiment ended.

My Solution

Only one-third of the participants realized they’d been given a clue when Maier bumped the rope. The other two-thirds explained they arrived at the solution themselves. They fully believed they solved the puzzle, without help, even though they didn’t.

The majority of participants were easily persuaded to solve the puzzle Maiers way, with Maiers help, the whole time thinking it was their idea.

It happened through a psychological concept called priming.


Imagine I show you pictures of delicious food for 30 seconds. Then I blindfold you and expose you to the smells of those same great dishes. Then I quickly remove the blindfold and in front of you is a whiteboard with the letters S-O-_-P. I ask you to fill in the missing letter. You will most likely spell the word soup. In fact you probably thought that was the answer before I explained it.

But, with a little priming I can change the answer.Heuristics

Imagine now that I showed you images of dishes being cleaned, brooms and clean laundry. Then I blindfold you and expose you to the smell of lemony cleaners and bleach and pull off your blindfold to the same puzzle.

S-O-_-P now becomes soap.

Priming is another example of a heuristic, like loss aversion. Our thinking, decision making and even memory is affected by the context of the situation.


Remember, heuristics are shortcuts or rules of thumb that our brain uses to speed up our decision making process. They are, for the most part a good thing. But they can be very easily manipulated and with them, so can you. The priming heuristic is one of the most commonly manipulated heuristics.

Here is an example of the priming heuristic in action.

Ray is an eighth grader who wants to play a joke on his little brother Tom. He tells Tom to spell the word white, which Tom does. Then he asks what color paper plates are. Tom says they are white. So far he’s two for two. Ray then tells Tom to spell the color of snow, which of course is w-h-i-t-e.

Finally Ray tells Tom to spell what cows drink as fast as possible. Tom thinks he’s being tricked into spelling white again. So he smugly spells m-i-l-k. Ray laughs and explains to his very primed little brother that cows drink w-a-t-e-r.

A Tool

Priming is a very powerful, psychological tool. It can be used to help people get in the right mindset before a talk, help people with diets and even improve marriages. But manipulators can use this tool to influence their victims into thinking that poor choices were their idea. They corrupt the mind of the innocent with thoughts that lead others to the actions they are trying to illicit.

Priming is just one example of a heuristic that effects our decision making. Other examples include:

Consistency heuristic

a heuristic where a person responds to a situation in a way that allows them to remain consistent.

Absurdity heuristic

is an approach to a situation that is very atypical and unlikely – in other words, a situation that is absurd. This particular heuristic is applied when a claim or a belief seems silly, or seems to defy common sense.

Common sense

a heuristic that is applied to a problem based on an individual’s observation of a situation. It is a practical and prudent approach that is applied to a decision where the right and wrong answers seems relatively clear cut.

Contagion heuristic

causes an individual to avoid something that is thought to be bad or contaminated. For example, when eggs are recalled due to a salmonella outbreak, someone might apply this simple solution and decide to avoid eggs altogether to prevent sickness.

Availability heuristic

allows a person to judge a situation on the basis of the examples of similar situations that come to mind, allowing a person to extrapolate to the situation in which they find themselves.

Working backward

causes a person to solve a problem by assuming that they have already solved it, and working backward in their minds to see how such a solution might have been reached.

Familiarity heuristic

allows someone to approach an issue or problem based on the fact that the situation is one with which the individual is familiar, and so one should act the same way they acted in the same situation before.

Scarcity heuristic

is used when a particular object becomes rare or scarce. This approach suggests that if something is scarce, then it is more desirable to obtain.

Rule of thumb

applies a broad approach to problem solving. It is a simple heuristic that allows an individual to make an approximation without having to do exhaustive research.

Affect heuristic

is when an individual makes a snap judgment based on a quick impression. This heuristic views a situation quickly and decides without further research whether a thing is good or bad.  Naturally, this heuristic can be both helpful and hurtful when applied in the wrong situation.

Authority heuristic

occurs when someone believes the opinion of a person of authority on a subject just because the individual is an authority figure. People apply this heuristic often in matters such as science, politics, and education.

List referenced from http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-heuristics.html

Final Thoughts

Heuristics can become very powerful tools. But they are something that can be manipulated into unethical and even illegal actions. Psychopaths use heuristics, often to control their victims. ABC used heuristics to a very unfortunate end. Jonathan Freedman taught us about psychological reactance using heuristics in young boys. It’s important to use heuristics to help people, not to manipulate them. It is said that the difference between a good influencer and a bad one is as follows. The good one gets people to do something the people want. The bad influencer gets people to do something the influencers wants.

Which one are you?

To learn more click here.

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