Culture · mental health · Psychology · Religion · Self and Society · Sociology

Altering the Availability Heuristic

A heuristic is “a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with minimal mental effort.”

We use heuristics all the time. In any given situation, we are armed with data about the situation — usually sensory — and use heuristics to fill in the gaps in information. Most of the time, this can be a very logical process. We draw upon our knowledge and experience to make a judgment about people or environments, which is why this particular type is known as an availability heuristic. Stereotyping is one such example.

Placing too much emphasis on this availability heuristic presents some major problems, because it is based on incomplete information. Sometimes the information gap is filled in with false assumptions based on our past experiences, and that can lead to gross misconceptions.


On a grand scale, many do this with celebrities of all kinds. We assign a set of beliefs to a politician based on whichever political ideology they identify with. We do the same with religious leaders based on their affiliations. With the emergence of very vocal positions on “woke” assumptions of race and gender throughout Hollywood, we stereotype actors as liberals.

It is only when one of these celebrities violates our assumptions that we see them differently. Sometimes, we overcompensate by heroizing the ones with which we find ourselves in agreement. We also villainize those with whom we disagree, largely because our assumptions have been violated. We feel betrayed, because our heuristic failed to manifest correctly.

Armed with new information, we recalculate our heuristic. Perhaps we research a little more in depth before jumping to a conclusion about someone. Sometimes we acknowledge that they might be an anomaly and dig deeper into our presuppositions. In the end, these are celebrities whom we will never meet.

A bigger problem arises when we do this with people we actually know.


We all have an acquaintance or friendly neighbor with whom we can carry on cordial conversations. We apply the availability heuristic when we first meet them, and rightly so. As we get to know them better, we tend to adjust the heuristic. Unfortunately, it is near impossible to get to know someone entirely. Not even a spouse knows their partner as intimately as they probably believe they do. How, then, can we possibly know someone with whom we meet for a few minutes each week?

For example, you meet a young lady who, on the surface, looks and acts like other young ladies of a similar age and station. Their attire, attitude, and speech resemble that of several others you know. They have a similar world view, and have similar goals in life. They even have similar personality traits.

However, you spend more time with this young woman and notice her idiosyncrasies. Perhaps you detect a personality trait or two that differs from the others you initially stereotyped her with, so you adjust your heuristic so that she matches a different group. This gal who you once saw as kind and generous exhibits some hardness that you did not expect.

It is your experience that women with those characteristics come from broken homes. Their defense mechanism is to keep others at a distance. Most of the women you know who are this guarded experienced some form of abuse or trauma during their childhood. You pick up additional clues from passing conversations or even hearsay, and you adjust the heuristic based on the experience and information available.

Now, your interactions with the young lady change. You begin to apply the modified heuristic. Your intentions are just. You want to be a family figure to this person, because you just know that their family was not there for them — or worse. You mean well, so you justify encroaching on their guard when they are more comfortable when you are on the outside.

All the while, you have never really taken time to understand this individual, because they remind you so much of so many others. You feel you know them, but you don’t.

If you did, you would know that it was not childhood trauma that hardened them. In fact, she is not hardened at all; just shy. What toughness she does exhibit from time to time has nothing to do with abuse in the home, but simply growing up in a hard world — social unrest, homelessness, an unsatisfactory job, and many other factors led to this. Seeing the way that our once friendly society has become selfish and entitled is enough to cause her to not bother with many people. She has loving parents and a few quality friends, and she is satisfied with that. They reason she does not invite you closer, is because she does not really need you to be — and it is nothing personal at all.

Armed with this knowledge, how would you react with your preconceived heuristic? Hopefully, you would appreciate that you jumped to conclusions and work to correct that, rather than be upset that you were wrong.


Research shows that empathy can have positive outcomes on our heuristic use. I would argue that empathy is necessary for building solid relationships with others. It is vital.

One of the positives from my own education in sociology, is my increased ability to take the mind of “the other.” I am much better at controlling my own impulse to apply stereotypical heuristics to individuals. Statistics help us form ideas of group behavior, but only through empathy can we take the proper time to understand an individual.

I tend to draw, and be drawn to, outcasts. It is a badge of honor to not fit in with any particular clique. I am not one to make friends, but the friends I have are a loyal group, and that is perfectly fine with me. I have noticed over the years that people that I barely know tend to reveal personal information about themselves. It took me many years to figure out that there is a sense of empathy that I give off.

I don’t judge people for their flaws or odd idiosyncrasies. The “weird” person is often misunderstood. Perhaps they look unkempt because they cannot afford well-fitting clothes. Perhaps their hygiene is sub-par because they were never taught the proper way. Perhaps their manner of speaking is uncouth because they grew up in a home where expletives were the norm.

Rather than judge them as undesirable, like society often does, I try to get to know them before I stamp my availability heuristic on them.

This is done through empathy, and empathy is a skill that can be developed.

When we can see ourselves as “the other,” it is much easier to identify with someone else who is “othered” as well. When we learn how frustrating is to be incorrectly pre-judged, we can learn how to not be so judgmental or fall prey to stereotypes (good and bad) of others.

Rather than seeing every female as “generic broken woman,” every white person as a “white nationalist,” every Muslim as a “terrorist,” or Christian a “bigot,” we can appreciate each other’s individuality.

Rather than seeing every female as “generic broken woman,” every white person as a “white nationalist,” every Muslim as a “terrorist,” or Christian a “bigot,” we can appreciate each other’s individuality.

Understanding that we use heuristics is the first step. Next is understanding HOW we use them. Then, we must have the desire to be purposeful in changing them. When you find yourself stereotyping, take a moment to consider how much emphasis you put on your preconceived notions. Empathy will allow you to soften your expectations when new information about a person is presented.

Welcome the challenge to your assumptions, and take nothing for granted. It will make you a better person, and, if enough people were able to master the art of empathy and control their heuristics, all of society would improve as well.

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