Heuristics

Beware of what is lost to shortcuts.

Life in a mind without heuristics, the mental shortcuts we use to make judgments and solve problems, sounds to me like a life of agony. Even with the automatic access to these shortcuts that most of us enjoy, many of us will know the experience of taking unnecessarily long and winding paths to solving fairly insignificant problems, making fairly insignificant decisions and judgments. And if every one of our decisions and judgments required this kind of heavy cognitive lifting, then I suspect many more of us would think far less fondly of life, and I think that's probably true wherever your current feelings about it begin.

It's useful to have a base layer of these heuristics, just for the sake of basic efficiency in moving through the more trivial decision-making aspects of our days. But beyond that base layer, we should be wary of our tendency to take mental shortcuts. And I think our wariness should be proportional to the size of the problem.

I should not, for example, upon waking up each morning, feel compelled to do thorough research into toothbrushing techniques, weigh the pros and cons of using back-and-forth versus circular strokes or a combination of the two, or examine optimal toothbrushing durations or brush angles. These things were settled and automatized in me long ago, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it has reduced my total agony in life.

But the more complex the problem, the less reliable our mental shortcuts become. And the less reliable they become, the less useful they become, at least as long as rationality matters to us, which it should. Less reliable does not necessarily mean totally unreliable. And less useful does not necessarily mean altogether useless. But both mean that we should beware of what we lose to shortcuts.

We can take simplicity and digestibility and all kinds of other useful things from them. But to do so, we have to sacrifice some complexity. That's the tradeoff. And there's no such thing as a mental shortcut without that tradeoff.

It's no surprise, then, that we do this with some of the biggest and most sensitive debates of our times. Debates are opinions that teams form around. But they are also teams that opinions form around. And that’s one of our heuristics in action at its least reliable. That's Sarah Silverman's joke all over again, about checking Twitter to see how "we" feel about something, i.e., checking in with our teams to see what our collective position is on something. It's a shortcut to an opinion. And it's a safe opinion to have. It keeps our friends our friends and our enemies our common bond. But that's also dangerous, because having an enemy as a common bond gives us the strong sense that we're right. And if we're already right, then everyone who disagrees with us is already wrong and not worth listening to. And worse, being right is not enough. We want to be right and stand out. So we dial it up to 11. And our enemy—who's probably taking all the same shortcuts we are, and who likely now sees us as the enemy—also dials it up to 11. And we lose the middle. We lose the vast and complex ecosystem that exists between us, and the shared sensibilities therein. We trade it all in for speed and ease and little boosts to our ego. We get to feel right and certain (or at least not wrong and uncertain), but it comes at the cost of being more polarized, less rational, and less effective "problem-solvers."

We can't avoid this entirely. There's too much to know. Too many people and opinions to give our full attention to. But we are also not helpless. We can minimize the harm caused by our overuse of heuristics. We can welcome disagreement, for one. We can learn to value and respect it and meet it with humility and goodwill. We can also probably all make time to know a little more, to listen to a few more of the people and opinions that our teams or guts tell us we should disagree with. We can make a list of names associated with controversial opinions that we feel negatively about but haven't actually listened to or read in full. We can choose one of those names and take a deeper and less judgmental dive into whatever it is that that person actually said or wrote. If we're successful in doing this with an open mind, and we're still unchanged at the end of it, then fine. At least we have a more rational reason to be.

But perhaps the easiest and most beneficial thing we can do is this: Don’t know. Be less sure. Let things grow from all the gray areas that you've passed over or written off. Try to see those things that grow for what they are, rather than in opposition to what you are. But still don't know. Still don't be sure. That is, in my opinion, the best and most beneficent thing that any one of us can do right now. And we can all, in fact, do it right now.