Rules of Thumb

A rule of thumb is a useful way of problem solving and decision-making based on practical experience, which short-circuits or even contradicts theoretical learning – more concerned with generalities than specifics. We might refer to rules of thumb as common-sense practices; while academia prefers the term heuristics.

Rules of thumb are remarkably efficient ways at reaching a conclusion – delivering the right answer much quicker than more scientific methods. For example, how would you decide which of two cities had the largest population? The best solution would be to conduct a census but that would take too long. Another solution might be to take aerial photographs of houses and extrapolate from there but that would prove very expensive. A thoughtful rule of thumb might suggest beginning by counting the schools in each city or whether they had a university. Remember the problem is to determine which of the two cities has the largest population – not to count every resident.

Rational decision-making is the most precise way of coming up with the most correct answer. But, quite often, rules of thumb are more efficient and for the most part more effective. It is amazing how robust they can be even allowing for the precept that rules of thumb can sometimes be unconscious reflexes, conscious yet spontaneous responses, learned experiences or a mixture of all three. These mental shortcuts undoubtedly have evolutionary traits back to when survival was the utmost priority – but it is also true that there is only so much information that we can deal with at any one time and, therefore, efficiency overtakes absolute accuracy.

Complex problems require complex solutions, right? Wrong! Unless we’re dealing with scientific theory and chasing down answers to 10 places of decimal, rules of thumb can handle complex problems. A selection of top chess players was asked to record the first move that came to mind during a game even though they might subsequently take ages to actually make the move. The findings were that even in the heat of a complex chess match the first move that came to mind was invariably the best move.

It is not too far to travel from rules of thumb to intuition – the notion of instinctive understanding. Ella is 35 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She qualified in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Instinctively, which is more probable? A. She works in finance. B. She works in finance and is a feminist.

You have possessions to protect; you have loved ones to nurture; you have money to invest; you have retirement options to consider. How do you respond? These are just some of the decisions that most people resolve by adopting rules of thumb. Often the most efficient way of dealing with such matters is not to spend endless hours deliberating but rather to follow intuitive experience. Gut feelings – MMPI will definitely understand!!!

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