Heuristics are mental shortcuts that are hardwired in us to facilitate problem solving and help us make quick decisions. In order to function well in the world, we need to have the ability to think quickly and make immediate judgments, which requires reliance on “rules-of-thumb” or generalizations.

These generalizations are sets of rules that we have learnt to abide by in order to make instant decisions without having to give it too much thought. In essence, they reduce cognitive load since they do not require any mental effort.

Unfortunately, the flip side of heuristics is that they often result in irrational or inaccurate conclusions. In other words, we often make social errors when relying on heuristics.

Recognizing them during a social interaction could potentially be helpful in social anxiety. Indeed, heuristics often color our social interactions, and knowing whether you are on the receiving end or the giving end of heuristics can help you interpret a social interaction in a different way, perhaps a more neutral way.

Below is a list of heuristics relevant in Social anxiety:

  • Representativeness heuristic: tendency to make assumptions about the probability that an object or event A belongs to class B by looking at the degree to which A resembles B. It is the source of stereotypes.

Ex: Assuming that a person is a delinquent because they have tattoos

  • Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: tendency to give an initial value to an object and then adjust it until an acceptable answer is found. Unfortunately, people typically fail to adjust sufficiently, and as result the initial value exerts some “drag” on the final estimate, systematically biasing the result.

Ex: Assuming that others think more similarly to how we ourselves think than is actually the case, because they tend to start with their own thoughts and then adjust (insufficiently) for another person’s perspective.

  • Affect heuristic: Relying on our emotions to decide whether to attribute a quality of “goodness” or “badness” to a situation or event.

Ex: judging a social interaction negatively, because you are feeling depressed yourself.

  • Availability heuristic: Making judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example or instance comes to mind.

Ex: assuming that online dating is bad, because your friend told you about her bad experience, thus ignoring the positive experience of other people.

  • Take-the-best heuristic: making a decision based only on a single “good” reason (one positive attribute), ignoring other cues.

Ex: Deciding to take a job solely based on the salary offered, while ignoring its negative aspects.

  • Halo effect: tendency for positive impressions of a person/object/company to influence how well we think of them.

Ex: assuming that your favorite celebrity is a kind and intelligent person, only because you like them.

  • Confirmation bias: tendency to interpret, favor or recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

Ex: Judging a social situation as negative based on considering only negative aspects and ignoring evidence to the contrary.

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