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In my cognitive psychology class, we discussed heuristics. An example of a heuristic is loss aversion. Thus, in this context, a heuristic seems to be a general rule of thumb for how people behave.

But I was under the impression a heuristic was "any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical methodology not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals" (source: Wikipedia).

As an example, let us consider a coat rack. One might suppose that putting my coat on a coat rack is a type of problem solving strategy because it allows me to always find my coat at that location. Thus, the problem being solved would be "How can I always know where my coat is."

Can someone clarify whether the term "heuristic" as used in psychology can be used to refer to an intentionally chosen strategy (as opposed to loss aversion which is just "instinctive")?

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the question about the intentional versus unintentional heuristics. However, I don't think loss aversion is a good example for a heuristic. It's a behavioral phenomenon: people are influenced more strongly by losses than by gains. From an economic point of view, this is irrational and therefore a bias. Whether this bias is due to a heuristic (as a mental process leading to this behavior) is a different question. $\endgroup$ – user7759 Aug 8 '15 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ The coat rack example is not ideal either. Hanging the coat on the rack is a useful habit, but it's not an heuristic in the sense that there is no tradeoff between an optimal and a sufficient solution. $\endgroup$ – user7759 Aug 8 '15 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. I agree. How would you suggest I improve the post? I need replacement ideas. $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Aug 8 '15 at 6:35
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Short Answer:

Yes it can.

Long Answer:

According to Wikipedia,

A heuristic is “any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical methodology not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic.

This is a good general definition that seems to adequately capture the meaning behind "heuristic" as used in different fields. However, one must be careful to understand the specific use in a given context.

With regard to psychology, there seems to be some confusion because there are both intentional and unintentional heuristics. Examples of unintentional ones are the availability heuristic. Some of the unintentional ones are more prominent and have received more attention and, as a result, I am not sure this distinction that there are "intentional" heuristics is always made.

However, according to Tversky and Kahneman (Nobel laureate in Economics),

The term judgmental heuristic refers to a strategy ― whether deliberate or not ― that relies on a natural assessment to produce estimation or a prediction. One of the manifestations of a heuristic is the relative neglect of other considerations (Tversky and Kahneman, 294).

Source: "Extensional Versus Intuitive Reasoning: The Conjunction Fallacy in Probability Judgment" by Tversky and Kahneman in Psychological Review Vol. 90 No. 4, 1983.

Note: the notion of a "judgmental heuristic" means simply a heuristic used in the mental faculty of "judgement," which I will not attempt to define.

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