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Real World Examples of How Heuristics Have Been Used Against Us

Real World Examples of How Heuristics Have Been Used Against Us

How is it that we make up our minds to do something? How much thinking is there really involved in making a decision? Heuristics  provide a number of interesting explanations for how we avoid normal, rational thinking when we are confronted with information.
Most of us have probably wondered why certain contracts or legal documents are so very long and hard to read. Many assume that the lawyers authored these documents simply to confuse us mere mortals who cannot read legal texts, and while this may be true in some cases, there is another reason: they want to appeal to our heuristic decision making.

What is Heuristic Decision Making?

Heuristics is originally a Greek word that means to find. Heuristics are unconscious ways that we process information more quickly than if we were to think about it consciously.  The brain takes mental shortcuts to save time by thinking logically about things. There are many different ways (cognitive biases) that our brains have developed during the history of mankind to manage information in a faster way than rational thinking. The vast majority of our daily decisions are taken up by heuristic decision making.

Landing Pages

Just like the aforementioned legal contracts, sales pages are often very long and contain a variety of elements whose purpose is to convince us to buy the product by appealing to our heuristic decision making.

Length and Volume

The reason that sales pages are often very long and contain a lot of material–such as information in bullet form, pictures and lots of recommendations of satisfied customers–is in the hopes that you, as a consumer, will think:

Ah, if this much is written about the product, and if this many people (experts) recommend the product, then it must be good.”

landing page

    Of course this doesn’t work with all consumers, and there is no completely superior outline for how the optimal landing page should look, but it’s obvious that this longer version works well. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be used so frequently.

    Ultimately, length or volume are not indicators of the quality of the information, but it’s easy for us to get automatically tricked by our heuristic decision making to believe just that. It’s not that our brains are evil and are trying to fool us, but simply that they make this tradeoff of accuracy to save time.

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    Nazi Germany

    Heuristic decision making has always been an important part of politics and throughout history, there have been many tricks to convince the crowds. Various means of manipulating the media have existed for as long as civilization has existed.

    A less known part of the Nazi Party propaganda strategy was in the design of the vote ballots for the Austrian union with Germany in 1938. The circle to vote “YES” was considerably larger than the circle to vote “NO“.  Due to its size, we unconsciously attribute more importance to the bigger circle and are more drawn towards it.

    An overwhelming majority of the Austrian population voted for the reunification with Germany.

    Stimmzettel-Anschluss

      Today, this kind of trickery is banned in political contexts in most countries.

      Speeches and Presentations

      Just like the example with the landing pages, we are often influenced by the length of the speech or the reputation of the speaker. These things really have nothing to do with the content, yet through heuristic decision making, we think they do.

      Suppose you are sitting in a meeting and listening to a speaker who talks about a topic that you know nothing about.

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      Even if the speaker doesn’t really say anything particularly clever, after a while, you will start to have a certain amount of confidence in him given that you do not know anything about the subject.

      Just the fact that the speaker is able to talk about something in a certain amount of time (say 20 minutes) in a coherent manner gets your heuristic decision making to conclude that the speaker probably actually does know what he’s talking about, and that the content probably actually is clever, though perhaps you cannot understand its meaning. Furthermore, if the speech was really as bad as you suspected at first, wouldn’t you have just left?

      In both of the above cases you are post-rationalizing to find a reasonable explanation for what is happening right now.  Another way of putting it is that your brain is trying very hard to avoid cognitive dissonance. In the first case you rationalize the situation by thinking:

      “Well, if this guy who is speaking can go on for 20 minutes he probably knows what he is speaking about, even if I don’t.”

      And in the second case you are likely rationalize by means of wanting to keep your self-image intact:

      “I wouldn’t listen to bad speeches or waste my time with stupid people, that’s not who I am. Therefore the fact that I have sat here for a long amount of time has to mean that this speech is good. Otherwise I would have left–wouldn’t I?”

      In both of these cases, your brain is trying to piece together the reality of the current situation by means of explaining the past in a not so accurate manner.
      In this second case, maybe you even begin to perceive the speaker as an expert in his field, which brings us to the next example.

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      Authorities and Experts

      It is a well-known fact that we often rely on experts’ or authorities’ opinions instead of thinking for ourselves. It is not a coincidence that Nike sponsors Tiger Woods or that a stock plummets when its management and other insiders inexplicably sell their own shares.
      Nor is it a coincidence that people in the financial industry dress very nicely and talk in terms that are difficult for a lot of ordinary people to understand. This is done deliberately to be perceived as experts.

      If the average person knew that most financial advisors are actually glorified salespeople that rarely beat the index and usually just place your money in an index fund and takes a percentage cut for it, they would not choose to invest their money with them.

      experts and authorities

        From a logical perspective, it is not surprising that we trust the experts in a particular area given that they have probably thought a lot more about the subject than we have. The experts have most likely evaluated the different options better than we could do with our limited knowledge on the subject.
        For us, it’s about saving time or to avoid doing something we think is boring. We simply do not have the time or inclination to think about everything ourselves.
        Relying on experts or authority figures need not be a bad thing at all, but it’s important for us to be aware of how much we rely on others and in which situations we are inclined to do so. Ultimately, by relying on experts or authorities we are hitchhiking by means of their intelligence, and we become very susceptible to influence.

        Computer Programs and the Internet

        How often do you actually review the terms of a downloaded computer program, a phone app, or some Internet service?

        Probably not very often.

        You just want the program to work immediately and you feel that you cannot be bothered reading through the fine print: whether the program gets access to your personal information or is allowed to monitor your web behavior only plays a minor role in your decision–you don’t have time or energy to think about that.
        Maybe you’ve checked one of those boxes where you, without thinking about it, have relinquished ownership of your soul to the creator of the computer program.

        Conclusion

        We are getting bombarded with more information, choices, and offers than ever before in history, and it’s unlikely that this trend is going to slow down in the future.

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        At the same time we are becoming increasingly specialized, and specialization comes at a price–we have to spend our time and energy on only a few areas of knowledge. This forces us to trust in specialists of other areas instead of learning these things for ourselves.

        This is a good thing viewed from a global market perspective, but it is very harmful to the single individual because he will not be bothered to make fully informed decisions.

        We don’t have the time to evaluate all alternative in today’s information society.  This means that we are less likely to increasingly rely on heuristic decision making to save time.

        What role do you think that heuristic decision making will play in the future of mankind?

        Will its use increase or decrease?

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        Last Updated on March 13, 2019

        How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

        How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

        Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

        You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

        Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

        1. Work on the small tasks.

        When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

        Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

        2. Take a break from your work desk.

        Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

        Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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        3. Upgrade yourself

        Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

        The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

        4. Talk to a friend.

        Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

        Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

        5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

        If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

        Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

        Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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        6. Paint a vision to work towards.

        If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

        Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

        Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

        7. Read a book (or blog).

        The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

        Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

        Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

        8. Have a quick nap.

        If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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        9. Remember why you are doing this.

        Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

        What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

        10. Find some competition.

        Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

        Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

        11. Go exercise.

        Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

        Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

        As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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        Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

        12. Take a good break.

        Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

        Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

        Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

        Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

        More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

        Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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