The Use of Heuristics
Heuristic – a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgements quickly and efficiently.
To put simply, a heuristic is a mental shortcut we use to answer a difficult question. Many times, in an effort to solve a complex problem, we reduce the problem to a simpler nature – and solve it that way. This is a heuristic. To provide an example of this in health and fitness, observe the following question.
- How bad are carbs for weight gain?
- How effective have carb reducing effects been on the weight of people around me?
Question 1 is a much harder question to answer because it requires a strong foundation of human physiology. It requires specific segmentation of the question to ‘for who?’, ‘for what?’, ‘what do you mean by bad?’ These are all questions within the question, which then require different answers. The answer becomes long and complex.
Question 2 is a far easier question to answer because it draws on the immediate examples that you know. By thinking about question 2, we might be immediately reminded of carb-free diet books and photos and videos of ‘before and after’ carb-free methodologies. In this process (usually taking place in the form of seconds), we might very quickly conclude that ‘carbs are bad for weight gain.’ Question 2 is an example of a heuristic – a mental shortcut we took to answer a more complex problem (question 1).
In the mental exercise above, we might assume that heuristics can become dysfunctional. So then, what is the function of a heuristic?
Without heuristics, the world can become overwhelmingly complex. If we were to contemplate every single problem presented to us, many of us would be paralysed with indecision, or at the very least, VERY slow to address our problems. It is an essential adaptation to the complexity of existence.
In the context of coaching, having this knowledge is crucial to the influence we have on our clients. We all use heuristics. It is inevitable. However, by recognising a heuristic in our clients, we may be able to address underlying unhelpful beliefs. Remember that a heuristic first begins with a reduction in the question, followed by solving the question with the most convenient story. As coaches, we have to first address the question, before we are able to understand the story, before we are able to challenge the belief.
For example, a client may believe that weight training will automatically make them bulky. It is not enough for us to say ‘no it won’t’ (even though it’s true). It is more important that we ask ‘what makes you think that?’
In most instances, the answer we will get is ‘all those bodybuilders are so big.’ This is an answer to a reduced question. But, what is the question? The question is something along the lines of this: ‘who or what have I seen lifting weights?’
In this way, we are identifying the question behind their belief. Once the question is understood, we can begin to recalibrate their belief by providing examples that answer their question. In this bodybuilding example, the important fact to recognise is this: if you associated weight training with titans from bodybuilding, you would be foolish to think that weight training doesn’t make you bulky.
Once the question is identified, we must answer it with contrary evidence. In the bodybuilding example, it would likely be ineffective to present scientific articles that contradict their beliefs, because that is not the question. The question is not ‘what scientific papers are available that show me weights won’t make me bulky?’ The question is ‘who have I seen that lift weights?’ Instead, we would have to show them individuals who lift weights who are not bulky.
Once you have done this, the subject will likely be in a state of confusion. Their problem solving strategy cannot address what you’ve shown them. In their minds, this is usually the next logical question.
But what about all the bodybuilders I see? This is then our chance to elaborate why bodybuilders are so big – years of dedication, diet, etc. In most cases, we can then begin to present information that would be closer to the truth.
By recognising a heuristic, we become cognisant of a simplification. By identifying the simplified question, we can understand their belief, and how we can address it.