When solving a problem
When solving a problem, choosing the right approach is often the key to arriving at the best solution. In psychology, one of these problem-solving approaches is known as an algorithm. An algorithm is a defined set of step-by-step procedures that provides the correct answer to a particular problem.
The upside of using an algorithm to solve a problem or make a decision is that yields the best possible answer every time. This is useful in situations when accuracy is critical or where similar problems need to be frequently solved.
The downside of using an algorithm to solve the problem is that this process tends to be very time-consuming.For example, a physician making a decision about how to treat a patient could use an algorithm approach, yet this would be very time-consuming and a treatment needs to be implemented quickly. In this instance, the doctor would instead rely on their expertise and past experiences to very quickly choose what they feel is the right treatment approach.
In psychology, algorithms are frequently contrasted with heuristics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to quickly make judgments and solve problems. These mental shortcuts are typically informed by our past experiences and allow us to act quickly. However, heuristics are really more of a rule-of-thumb; they don’t always guarantee a correct solution.
If complete accuracy is required, it is best to use an algorithm. By using an algorithm, accuracy is increased and potential mistakes are minimized.
On the other hand, if time is an issue, then it may be best to use a heuristic. Mistakes may occur, but this approach allows for speedy decisions when time is of the essence.
Heuristics are more commonly used in everyday situations, such as figuring out the best route to get from point A to point B. While you could use an algorithm to map out every possible route and determine which one would be the fastest, that would be a very time-consuming process.