Heuristics in Politics

Little has changed since prehistoric times. Cavemen and legislators share similar decision making tools. Nevertheless, results differ.

Cavemen did not have access to much education. Their education system wasn’t anywhere near that of modern society. It was based mainly on oral transmission of the elders’ experience. As a result, faced with all the possible alternatives of a given problem, they based many of their decisions on gut feelings, emotions, proverbs or common sense. It worked well for them; they survived for hundreds of thousands of years.

What cavemen were doing was relying on the use of heuristics.
Heuristics are simple rules requiring little information that usually yield acceptable solutions. They are mental shortcuts that allow people to make decisions quickly and efficiently, faster than using the rational thinking process of our cerebellum. Heuristics are mainly used when, given a problem, exhaustive research of all possibilities is impractical to find the optimal solution.

In popular culture heuristics is often referred to as simple common sense. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, stereotyping or intuition. For example, what’s the distance between Seattle and San Francisco? A truck driver from the West Coast used to driving on I-5 would easily reply: “around 800 miles”. And he would be right.

The decision making process has not changed much in the last 50,000 years. Modern man may be far more educated than his prehistoric ancestors, but the world we live in is much more complex. Even highly-educated individuals are at loss when it comes to dealing with modern life problems.

How do we solve the existing economic crisis? How do we deal with greenhouse effect emissions? What about plastic pollution? And how can we stop the obesity pandemic? The intricacies of these problems are too complex for anybody – even the experts - to give straightforward answers.

There is a common assumption among regular folks that legislators – smart people - know what there are doing. They do not. They are at a loss for making decisions like everybody else. Their rational cerebellum can’t cope with all possible outcomes. As a result, legislators, like cavemen, are forced to rely on heuristics for making decisions about modern life problems.

We must be careful. Heuristics generally deliver quite good results. But the “educated-guess” of a moron can most certainly lead to dreadful disaster. Given the results, present time legislators cannot claim this skill is their forte.

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