The word heuristic, which refers to applying a rule of thumb (often based on experience) to interpreting information that can allow you to come to quick conclusions, is red-hot in the marketplace of words. When I looked it up on m-w.com, a pop-up proclaimed that “Heuristic is currently in the top 1% of lookups and is the 172nd most popular word…a green arrow indicates a fast mover: this word increased significantly in lookups over the past seven days.”

Part of the reason for the word’s trendiness can be attributed to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist’s 2011 bestseller that presents his theory about how the mind works on two levels, one fast, intuitive, and emotional, the other slow and deliberative. I’ve only begun reading it, but am already spellbound. Kahneman is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on heuristics. He uses the word as a noun (it’s also an adjective), though it strikes me that this is just a kind of shorthand that people working around this word have developed to avoid having to type “heuristic approach” over and over.

Beyond Kahneman, I think the word’s appeal today is that it’s a suitably academic word that sounds a heck of a lot better than other nouns that can be used to mean the same or similar things, such as: “cheat,”  “life-hack,” etc. It’s also popular because heuristics themselves are in demand. In our increasingly complex, big-data-driven lives, heuristics offer a way to avoid doing all of the number-crunching. Recently an index card that distills a reasonable personal finance strategy onto a 4×6 index card went viral. When I read the card, I agreed with everything on it—I had already subscribed to all of the heuristics.

I’ll post about Kahneman’s take on heuristics later, after I’ve read the book.  Something tells me that while they are super useful, they may also blind us as well.

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