#12: The Simulation Heuristic


Picture this:

You sleep through your alarm and wake up 15 minutes late. You quickly pack your bags, throw on some clothes and head for the airport. Your driver takes a wrong turn and gets stuck in a traffic jam. You make it to the airport, hop out the Uber and race to the check-in desks. You find out you've missed your flight...

Which would upset you more, missing it by 5 minutes or missing it by 30?

If you're like most people, the near miss of 5 minutes would distress you far more than missing your flight by 30. This is due to a powerful 'shortcut' in our brains called The Simulation Heurstic which leads us to judge the likelihood of events occurring depending on how readily we can call them to mind, in other words, how readily we can imagine or 'simulate' them.

Because it is that much easier for us to imagine hearing our alarms and waking up on time, not taking that one wrong turn, or not encountering a traffic jam, missing our flight by 5 minutes feels that much more 'in reach' and is thus that much more disappointing when we just miss out.

Essentially the Simulation Heuristic is applicable when we can easily 'mentally undo' the sequence of events that led to a specific outcome. Another common example is a fatal car crash. While always horrific and devastating, research has shown that when exceptional events occur - such as someone who normally took the bus to work drove that day, or went a different route because they were running an errand for a friend - the emotional reaction of sadness and regret is that much more intense than if it had been an accident that occurred in 'run of the mill' circumstances.

This is because it is that much easier to 'undo' the decision not to catch the bus, or the request of a friend, than to understand where, in a standard sequence of events, something could go so wrong. In this sense the Simulation Heuristic is a byproduct of our brain's propensity for narrative information and the construction of casual stories.

One of it's most interesting applications  in Clinical Psychology has been to the diagnosis and treatment anxiety. Research has shown that those suffering from anxiety have higher Simulation Heuristic scores than those that do not. They have more '(over-)active imaginations', so to speak, and find it that much easier to imagine and simulate events, particularly 'everything that could go wrong'.