Word of the Day: Heuristic

 

To me, heuristic is a $50 word. It’s a word I hear bandied about from time to time by “educated” people, people who I must acquiesce are much smarter than I—people who are not satisfied to just study engineering, but they also have to study law. Those people. The types who fix supercolliders for a living.

Heuristic—it’s a scary word—no Latin root here. Telling you that it’s of Greek origin might give you a clue to its meaning.

Heuristic is a word that comes up around the topic of problem solving. I get this image in my mind of the ancient Greeks, sitting around, marveling at the universe, coming up with ideas like democracy and atoms. No computers. Wars aplenty.

So what are you going to do when you want to solve a problem? Well, I suppose you’d get together some techniques. Me, personally, I would overthink it to death and then give up, but not so with the Greeks. The Greeks are going to get it done, even if they have to give you something that is “good enough.” It might not be the ultimate truth, but it will do in a pinch. That’s where the connection to engineering comes in. In engineering, you have limits: budget, tools, brainpower, time, whatever. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. You need to find a solution—yesterday.

I am guessing that heuristics might not be the choice tool of the perfectionist, to whom “good enough” is never the correct solution. Idealism, perfectionism, pish posh.

Heuristic methods speed up your search; they help you discover; they are mental shortcuts that lessen the mental load.

If someone threatens your livelihood, demanding that you solve a problem yesterday and thus causing your brain to freeze up with stress, causing you to listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela for hours on end to calm the terrifying prospect of failure, you pull out some heuristic methods to get the job done.

Here are some examples of heuristics:

  • Trial and error
  • Rule of thumb
  • Making an educated guess
  • Stereotyping
  • Profiling
  • Common sense

Or, some more concrete techniques:

  • Drawing a picture when you can’t understand a problem
  • Working backward
  • Examining a concrete example to tackle an abstract problem

Moving away from engineering into the realm of psychology, the term “heuristics” refers to simple, efficient rules which are learned or instinctual that shed insight into how people make decisions (come to judgments and solve complex problems or when faced with incomplete information).

In a nutshell, heuristics are the bane of my existence. Those using heuristics are satisfied with the solution that is good enough; this, of course, offends my inner core of idealism. They allow you to side step incomplete information. How many times have I felt that people have made inaccurate judgments about me because they were satisfied with working with incomplete information, instead of just talking with me directly. Ah! Curses! Heuristics!

To be fair, I use heuristics all the time. Sometimes you just don’t have access to your expert and you need to get the work done, so you make the educated guess. You toss that guess out into the universe to see if it gets shot down—80% of the time, it flies.

Heuristics. (experience-based techniques for problem solving that help you find an OK solution.)

 

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