Decision-making shortcuts designed to aid overloaded cognition

Heuristics is a generally invisible term in the self-defense/martial arts, even in branch areas of pertinence. What are heuristics? Consider the previous OODA-Loop article the “what” and “how”, heuristics the “why.” Heuristics are those little mental shortcuts and internal scripts we utilize to make the “best decision possible” under current circumstances, situations, and scenarios. They are designed to speed-up the processing-analysis using a combination of perceptual filters we have discussed previously – experience, exposure, nature, nurture, age, gender, class, state, environment, culture, previously-training & education, by-proxy learning, et al.

Mental shortcuts are taken based on reference-points to the most alike, closely-aligned, previously-similar occurrences we’ve had and the most successful outcomes we’ve come to with those occurrences. As this is generally not a fully-conscious process and is innate, we’re generally or often not even aware we’re even making these mental connections and references. The mental rolodex is generally surfed for closest successful (or unsuccessful with limited familiarity and rapidly assessing previous errors for unsuccessful result) scenario with which to make a like and highest-percentage or greatest-“survivability”decision.

We use heurisitics daily…and often. What should we wear. What list of things we need to accomplish within our day, and in what order. What do buy for groceries. Whether to put gas in the car or not. Whether to have that second or third cup of coffee. All the way to whether to make that big business deal, buy that house, or trade-in that car.

They are also shortcuts that can be to better understand and become effective at a thing. Taking a route to the beach where you remember that there was recently bad weather that wore-away a part of the road might lead to a route-change. Visualizing images to better understand that mathematical problem to help come to the proper solution. Making judgment on someone who does yoga and has long hair falling into a certain profile. Lumping someone who believes in a certain political-party into a universal bucket of their representation as a person.

It’s also very pertinent to risk, threat, danger, violence, and conflict, where the immediate risk is exponentially higher.

For example, you see a very sketchy individual staring at you from the street corner while you’re inside a retail-store. Instead of knee-jerking into a volatile response, we peruse that rolodex rapidly for previous experiences with this, including those that are similar yet different. Context is rapidly glossed-over with potentialities that factor-in – time-of-day, volume of people around, other things he could be staring at or things on you that catch his attention (the writing on your shirt/your stand-out clothing), his threat-potential (age/gender/disability/physique/clothing), and a host of others. All within seconds. Then a highest-probability-of-success conclusion that may include a simple acknowledgement of awareness, greeting, smile, glare, ignoring, approaching, questioning, restricted-vision aperture, exit, etc.

Heuristics increase in that success-probability the greater experience, exposure, knowledge, training, understanding of these decisions we have. Flaw is a built-in element, noting that there’s always number of positive outcomes that can be gleaned from a number of different choices. And error is also present, in which case this process is repeated and, with greater information and developing-circumstance, those heuristics refer back to other, more refined and more accurate incidents of reference.

Regardless, heuristics are designed to limit the cognitive-load and alleviate indecisiveness, hesitation, and inaction from the vast input of incoming stimuli. Now, they can be very wrong very easily as well. Cognitive bias and misunderstanding of the circumstance itself can cause that quick decision-making to be offline from the get-go. An overconfidence (Dunning-Kruger) of one’s previous experience, exposure, success, and environment can absolutely lead to overconfidence, underestimation, or misdiagnosis. That’s an element that needs to be addressed and acknowledged. No single incident transfers directly to another. Different context; people, dynamics, environments, times, cultures, and the like can all lead to those heuristics leading us to entirely wrong conclusions.

All of the above perceptual filters independently can affect the accuracy of those heuristics as well. Different assessments come with different states. If I’m happy I may assess the same situation differently than if I was mad, or distracted, or anxious. My childhood may contribute to me analyzing things from a perspective of isolation or one-dimensionality. My outdated lessons learned from one generation past from my parents/grandparents/uncles/aunts may be outdated and not pertain at all to current, modern circumstances – or to the environment/culture I’m currently living in. Spiritual-belief may cloud my ability to see the danger or risk in a given situation. Training in one thing may not transfer well to another thing – or even an unprepared-for scenario or mis-evaluation of opponent.

While I don’t think these elements can be completely reeled-in or controlled, I do think that self-awareness, cognitive-bias checks, and regular re-evaluation of blind-spots and emotional-state can help with increasing accuracy. Regardless, they are there to assist in problem-solving, learning, and judgments that generally has higher-stakes, bigger repercussions, more risk, and minimal time. Yet another in a long-line of innate tools that help keep us alive that generally go either ignored, misunderstood, or unknown – and yet another thing most martial arts instructors won’t/don’t/can’t explain to you.

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