The Dangers of Rule of Thumb Thinking
Heuristics, stereotypes, and normalization are certainty-seeking, simplifying, fear responses. When faced with the unknown, a new challenge or an unexpected result, we lean towards the past. In the known processes and practices that sufficed yesterday, we expect to find a familiar trope to satisfy and placate our anxiety. There are at least six different forms that heuristics come in and I have exercised all of them. 


"Educated guess" is a heuristic that allows a person to reach a conclusion without exhaustive research. With an educated guess a person lazily considers what they have observed in the past, and applies that history to a situation where a better answer would require research, reflection, and thinking. When I use this to navigate to an unfamiliar destination by recalling streets run north/south and avenues east/west, this may be successful and harmless. If I try to impose the past into my future health and diagnose a new injury or ailment based on previous circumstances, it may dangerous. If I assume that a solution to one social problem, like homelessness can be solved with the same approach as poverty reduction, it could be life threatening.


"Common sense" is 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. But when we jump to this defense in wicked circumstances, we can unjustly and unjustifiably make false assumptions that lead to simple solutions. Common sense allows us to get to a solution without earning the right to it through difficult and complicated reasoning and effort.


"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. This is efficient when we encounter a red octagon again and again but limiting and crippling if stop isn't the appropriate action.


"Tribal Channeling heuristic" reflects the views of our community above all other possibilities. Rational discussion and reflection is surrendered to the 'knowing of the tribe' even when evidence contradicts.


"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 any meaningful research.


"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 mistakenly and slovenly use this heuristic all the time in matters such as science, politics, and education. I find this one annoying when it is used to limit engagement rather than promote curiousity. " Experts say ..." "The facts are ..." " The President asserted ..."


Nothing is ever as easy to understand or defend as the model suggests. even in writing this short post, I started with six heuristics but realize that there are hundreds and thousands of variations on the themes. When they reduce stress and are innocuous, we can get away with using them but more often than not, we could improve the situation and our understanding by applying a bit of tough intellectual rigor.


Stereotypes are almost always dangerous and I will offer some warnings and solutions in the next post.