A heuristic is a device for solving a problem based upon experience or a rule of thumb. Heuristics enable people to apply general rules or frameworks to problems without having to solve equations or reason through an entire problem. Heuristics may yield less precise—and occasionally incorrect—solutions to problems, but save time and may yield answers that approximate the correct answer.

Heuristics in Psychology
Many evolutionary theorists have argued that humans are born with innate heuristic devices that enable them to solve problems they are likely to encounter in the world. Daniel Kahneman has argued that heuristics are actually attempts at replacing a complex problem with a simpler problem. Kahneman and Frederick call this process attribute substitution. This process is common in the diagnosis of health conditions, particularly mental health conditions. For example, a therapist might ask him or herself, “What common illnesses is this client having symptoms of?” rather than applying rigid scientific criteria and not proceeding with treatment until all possible causes are ruled out.

Well-Known Heuristics
Evolutionary theorists have posted several potential heuristic devices that people seem to use in decision-making. These include:

  • Effort Heuristic – the belief that something is worth the amount of effort required to create it. For example, a person might value a gift of $50 dollars less than $50 they had to work for, and therefore might be more inclined to spend the gift.
  • Affect Heuristic – The tendency to allow emotions to influence decision-making. For example, a woman is more likely to leave her husband because she is angry, and may believe that she is angry because she is with her husband.
  • Escalating Commitment – The tendency to continue to escalate one’s commitment to something, even in spite of evidence that the strategy is not working. Buying something for more than it is worth at an auction is an example of such a practice.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Kahneman, Daniel. “Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics.”American Economic Review 93.5 (2003): 1449-475. Print.
  3. Neal, Nicole. “Decision Making Heuristics.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <http://faculty.mercer.edu/spears_a/studentpages/heuristics/webpage.html>.

Last Updated: 08-21-2015

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  • john


    January 27th, 2017 at 11:53 PM

    Thank you for that. I believe that heuristic’s can be used as a model of Counselling where the Counselor can call upon their own life experience of very similar experiences that the client is stuck in process with and use this as a tool in connecting at a deep level with the client that is generally referred to as “relational depth”, but that I would prefer to call “momentary fusion” where client and counselor have a coming together of spirit like experience, that to me is the highest healing point potentially for the client in these moments of heuristic identification and permission from the counselor to self and allow this phenomenon to play out in the room rather then bracket it off,regardless of unique personal experiences its a moment to identify with the client and be identified as willing to fuse to enable healing. I think”Relational Depth”as terminology suggests what I am saying but only to a point of depth and probably more from a counselor’s perspective rather then the collective fusion that leaves no doubts about the phenomenological experience. Obviously if it is something the Counselor has not yet dealt with and brings up personal unresolved issue then this is the time to bracket off to avoid causing further distress to client or self.
    I think the power of Heuristic counselling and fusion is yet to be fully appreciated but it exists and I use this in my practice as I have seen it work and been to such levels of experience and healing. After all is this not what we try to achieve with our clients?
    john s.

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