The meaning of heuristic is most often equated with that of the more commonly spoken "rule of thumb". The OED defines "rule of thumb" as a "Method or procedure derived from practice or experience, rather than theory or scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method". If we compare its definition to that of a heuristic we find little difference: "method or process proceeding to a solution by trial and error or by rules that are only loosely defined". As the word heuristic is derived from the Greek heuriskō, meaning "to find" it might be expected that all heuristics are discovered, however this is not the case. Since our survival has always depended on the ability to make quick decisions in a fast-moving and complex environment, we are born equipped with a number of heuristics which constitute our instincts. Unlike heuristics emerging from trial and error within our lifetime, these are the product of natural selection which eliminates all approaches which do not lead to the organism passing on its genes. Instincts do not determine the single correct response for any given situation since this is impractical from an evolutionary standpoint. Instead, our instincts help to limit or guide our responses to those which have yielded the best results in the past, much like a "rule of thumb".
In the book Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer, the phenomena of heuristics is illustrated with "the gaze heuristic", involved in catching a ball already high up in the air. Whereas a perfect/formal method exists in which the trajectory and landing of the ball could be calculated mathematically, such a solution would be neither efficient nor effective in helping catch the ball on time.
Here, the gaze heuristic is described so as to catch a ball already high up in the air, by this method your location should be that of the ball as it lands.:
"Fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant."
Like catching a ball, many of the situations we face in life require solutions that are timely and practical rather than one hundred percent accurate. Though heuristic may sound more technical than “rule of thumb” its meaning does not extend a great deal beyond it.
1. Rouse, . WhatIs.com, "heuristic." Last modified 2009. Accessed November 25, 2012. http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/heuristic.
2. Soegaard ,Mads, and Dam. The Interaction Design Foundation, "The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 25, 2012. http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/heuristics_and_heuristic_evaluation.html
3. GIGERENZER, GERD. Gut Feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious. Penguin Group, 2007.
4. "heuristic, adj. and n.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/86554?redirectedFrom=heuristic (accessed November 25, 2012).