Rationality for Engineers: Part III: Content and Context of Heuristics

Document Type : Original Article


Brunel University, London


The focus of heuristics is on the content of decisions; however, the contexts are equally important; that is, where and how heuristics are used will often have a great influence on the outcome. Engineers need a lot of specialized skills, hard as well as soft, to successfully apply heuristics, i.e., to identify the heuristic that best fits the environment. Heuristics can help to lessen (not eliminate) the cognitive burden. This part of the four-part paper discusses how heuristics are created, improved, and refuted, and describes what judgment errors they might cause. In using heuristics, engineers must be aware of biases, which is examined in this part. The context of decision-making is also considered, and finally, the paper shows how heuristics should be used.

In engineering, heuristics are experience-based methods used to reduce the need for calculations such as equipment size, performance, or operating conditions. Heuristics are fallible and do not guarantee an optimal solution. It is important to understand their limitations when applying them to a different context. Heuristics work well in a stable environment, but if the environment is complex and changing, heuristics may lose their relevance and require updating. Though the applicability of heuristics is conditional, they can be of value when used expertly