How Heuristics Can Effect Good Decision-Making

heuristics and assumptions
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How a heuristic, a poor assumption and a bad decision and nearly got me killed

Cowering in a ditch, I knew that there was a good chance I could be killed or seriously injured by the explosion that was just seconds away. While awaiting my self-induced demise, I had a short time to consider my hubris.

I was a bomb disposal officer. I had been trained to deal with dangerous devices and I also had operational experience. So, if I was such an expert, how had I got into this mess? In a critical situation, despite my training, I had made an error in my decision making.

Pride comes before a fall

Let’s leave me and the ditch for the moment and let me ask you a question:

How do you make good decisions?

Have you thought about the process of making choices? It turns out that, although we can all make decisions, the psychology is quite complicated. If you had asked me that same question back then, early in my career, I would have talked to you about the power of logical thought and how a systematic approach to decision making would ensure good decisions.

Well, I was learning the hard way that there is more to decision-making than just assessing factors and choosing a course of action. There are also things called heuristics that – when used poorly – can spoil our plans.

Going out with a bang

First, let’s get back to me in that ditch. In fact, let’s wind back a little and see how I got there.

The day had started well. It was beautiful. The sky was so big and blue I could stare at it and just lose myself there, wrapped in the warmth of the sun, as I waited for a call from my squad. I was doing what I loved, leading my team, trying to make the world a safer place by removing dangerous objects from this magnificent African landscape. And it was fun too, blowing stuff up is fun (until you are caught up in the explosion that is).

On that day there were over a hundred people out scouring mile after mile of the countryside looking for dangerous material. This could be unexploded artillery shells, mortar rounds and even the occasional big bomb. When they found something, they would call me, as they did that day.

I was hailed on my radio and was given a location some miles away. I drove as close as I could in my Landrover 4×4 with my colleague and then we advanced the last mile or so on foot; when the terrain got too difficult. We turned up to find a large pile of artillery shells that needed to be disposed of. 

Situational analysis

At this point, our training and experience kicked in. We used our question technique to assess the situation and came up with a plan.

We had been instructed to use the 5Ws to help assess a situation. The 5Ws are the interrogative words of the English language: what, where, when, who and why. The other common interrogative of ‘how’ was generally added to these 5Ws.

The 5Ws would provide a structure to understand the situation. For example:

  • What are we dealing with?  In this case a pile of old artillery shells
  • Why are they there?  They have been fired from guns, but the fuse mechanisms have failed to detonate on impact 
  • Where are they? Located in a difficult to access area of bush. So what? We will have to go in and out on foot
  • Who is in danger?  Just my colleague and I; the rest of the area is clear for miles
  • How can they be disposed of?  Correct application of plastic explosive and a manual timed fuse

The answers to the questions informed our plan. And, as we did not have the vehicle nearby, we needed somewhere close that would provide us with some cover. We looked around and chose a small hillock in the distance that looked promising.  We estimated how long it would take us to walk there then cut the fuse to the correct length.  

Bomb disposal: if you see me running, try to keep up

After checking our work, we lit the fuse, checked our watches and set off towards the small hill that would give us cover.  We chatted about important things such as how many letters we had received from home that week and how much we wanted a cold beer.  The funny thing was the escarpment was not getting any closer.  Our pace increased.  

We laughed and joked, and we walked briskly along but looking at our watches gave us some cause for alarm.  We broke into a run.  There was no longer any laughing or even chatting.  All that was said was: “we are not going to get there in time, do you see any other cover?”  We spotted what seemed to be a series of gullies over to our left, so we headed towards them.  Upon reaching them our relief quickly turned back to anxiety because the shallow angle of the gully slopes would afford us little cover.  We ran on.  At this point in the proceedings, I sent up a quick prayer, and with only seconds to go and we dived into a shallow pit and crouched down with our backs to the sand. We had to compress ourselves to keep our heads below the parapet of the depression.

Going out with a bang?

For a few seconds, the only sound was our thumping hearts, heavy breathing and the noise of a nonchalant fly investigating my hat. Then we felt the explosion – a pulse through the earth and a punch through the air.  We looked at one another.  No words were exchanged but much was communicated.  We were both thinking – that was a bigger bang than expected; we felt dreadfully close!

Next, there was a sound that made me flinch – it was like an angry hornet going past my ear – and then there was another, followed by little thuds and puffs of sand as the shrapnel came down around us.  As the deadly rain struck the ground there was little we could do, so I opted to laugh and my Sergeant used a varied, colourful (but sadly unprintable) string of expletives to express his feelings.

When our self-induced bombardment came to an end, and it was obvious we were both not only alive but also unharmed, we spent a few precious seconds enjoying the quiet.  The same solitary fly, who seemed oblivious to the proceedings, was still taking an interest in my hat.  

Not surprisingly the whole experience made me ponder about my decision-making. 

The problem with heuristics and the dangers of bias

I had been trained in decision making and planning so what had gone wrong on that day? 

Well in this case one good decision-making tool had been undermined by another. My plan for dealing with the bombs was sound, but it was let down by the simple heuristic that I employed to choose my cover.

When judging distance, I was unknowingly using a scaling heuristic, in other words, I was estimating how far away the hillock was due to its size. The problem is this method only really works well if you have a uniform sized object – such as a person or vehicle – and something to compare it with. In this case, I was looking at a hill – I did not know its actual size – and there was nothing else in the bare landscape to compare it with. The hill was a lot bigger and further away than I estimated.

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

Daniel Kahneman

What is a heuristic?

A heuristic is a simple decision-making hack or rule of thumb. We use these all the time in our thinking and choices. 

One example would be how we choose things when we shop at the supermarket. Most of the things we pick up will be the same items we usually get. If you examine your groceries, most will be from suppliers that you know and regularly use. We do this largely to save us from making endless decisions. If we had to start again every time we went to the shops – not knowing what we liked or could trust – then it would take an age to select each thing. 

Considering the bewildering number of choices that are on offer in most shops these days. Without this simple heuristic, we could suffer from analysis paralysis. In other words, without a simple way to make decisions then the processing power of our brains could get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of data. 

That is why manufacturers fight so hard for brand recognition and product loyalty. They know they if they can make you switch to their product then you are very likely to stick with it. That is why they are willing to cut prices and make special offers to tempt you to switch your habits. 

And that is just one example of a heuristic. We use these thinking tools in everything from catching a ball to choosing where we sit in a cinema.

Are heuristics good or bad?

Heuristics are not bad in themselves. As mentioned, they are useful mental short-cuts that save us time and generally help us to make quick effective judgements. But each heuristic is a simplified model so it cannot take in all the complexities of a situation. Therefore, heuristics must rely on certain assumptions. Once again, assumptions are not intrinsically bad, but some assumptions can be wrong, or just inaccurate in some circumstances.

That is why we need to be aware of the heuristics we use and when we are using them. Going back to my example, there is nothing wrong with the scaling heuristic. Using relative sizes and distances is a well-known and very useful tool for judging distance. The problem was that I applied the tool bluntly, not considering if any of my assumptions were wrong. The reason for my assumptions being wrong was due to cognitive bias, in this instance confirmation bias (but that is another subject for another post).

Use heuristics but beware of hubris

I had a good process for making decisions (using interrogatives) but in this story, one little mistake nearly cost me my life and that of my colleague. In my case, it was my estimate of distance that undermined my plan. My hubris or overconfidence was enough for me to not examine my assumptions. 

That does not mean that the heuristic or the rest of the plan was bad. Far from it. Using heuristics, having a decision-making framework and other planning tools can help us make better decisions. 

But, as we plan, we must be cognisant of the heuristics and other processes that we are using, especially if those decisions are important. If we are choosing a coffee, fine we can take a risk and assume the barista knows what they are doing and can make a coffee. But if you have a bigger decision to make, such as getting a builder to extend your house, then it is worth examining your options, not just assuming anyone can do the work just because they say so.  

So, if you want to make better choices today ask yourself two questions.

  1. What heuristic or process am I using?
  2. What assumptions am I making and are they correct?

Then you will be on the path to better more effective decisions.

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