Heuristic is an adjective for experience-based techniques that help in problem solving, learning and discovery.  A heuristic method is particularly used to rapidly come to a solution that is hoped to be close to the best possible answer, or ‘optimal solution’.  Heuristics are “rules of thumb”, educated guesses, intuitive judgments or simply common sense.  Heuristics as a noun is another name for heuristic methods.

In more precise terms, heuristics stand for strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and machines.

In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules, hard-coded by evolutionary processes or learned, which have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information.  These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic errors or cognitive biases.

Although much of the work of discovering heuristics in human decision-makers has been done by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the concept was originally introduced by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon.  Gerd Gigerenzer focuses on how heuristics can be used to make judgments that are in principle accurate, rather than producing cognitive biases – heuristics that are “fast and frugal”.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick proposed that cognitive heuristics work by a process called attribute substitution which happens without conscious awareness. According to this theory, when someone makes a judgment (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, they instead substitute a more easily calculated heuristic attribute.  In effect, they deal with a cognitively difficult problem by answering a more simple problem, without being aware that this is happening.  This theory explains cases where judgments fail to show regression toward the mean.

(A different source)

As an adjective, heuristic pertains to the process of gaining knowledge or some desired result by intelligent guesswork rather than by following some preestablished formula. (Heuristic can be contrasted with algorithmic.) The term seems to have two usages:

1) Describing an approach to learning by trying without necessarily having an organized hypothesis or way of proving that the results proved or disproved the hypothesis. That is, “seat-of-the-pants” or “trial-by-error” learning.

2) Pertaining to the use of the general knowledge gained by experience, sometimes expressed as “using a rule-of-thumb.” (However, heuristic knowledge can be applied to complex as well as simple everyday problems. Human chess players use a heuristic approach.)

As a noun, a heuristic is a specific rule-of-thumb or argument derived from experience. The application of heuristic knowledge to a problem is sometimes known as heuristics.


It appears to me that it is less something we consciously control but more of a descriptor of pre-existing behavior.

Knowing the characteristics of our learning and/or problem-solving strategies is useful therefore an understanding of heuristics is useful.