Cognitive heuristics and homelessness

Cognitive heuristics can be best understood as shortcuts we make in our reasoning. Speaking in terms of evolution, humans would be at a disadvantage if we systematically interpreted every piece of information we come across (Gigerenzer, 1991; Tversky & Kahnemann, 1974). Through being able to focus on certain pieces of information and draw conclusions we are a more effective species that can more readily respond to the the world. However there is a downside to these cognitive heuristics. They often promote the acceptance of stereotypes as we search for the simplest and quickest way to understand the world.

When we subscribe to cognitive heuristics we often rely on the information that is most available to us. For example, we might assume we are more likely to be attacked on the street than we are in reality because of the intensity of news reports. The more intense or strong the information presented, the more readily available it is to be accessed by our minds (Pachur et al., 2012). Thereby, in the case of homeless, the saturation of news reports that present an anti-homeless narrative in Melbourne are likely to be the information people draw upon when they try to understand the issue quickly. Through this use of the availability heuristic an out-group homogeneity bias develops, in which it is assumed that homeless people are more alike than non-homeless people (Judd, et all., 2012). Or to put it simply, non-homeless people are seen as unique individuals with stories to tell whilst homeless people are all lumped together as one and the same.

There are many negative implications of using cognitive heuristics to understand marginalised communities. In congruence with the development of the out-group homogeneity bias, people show less sympathy or understanding to homeless people and other marginalised communities. They are also less likely to demonstrate helping behaviours. The process of re-routing the thought patterns requires considerable awareness building. In order to minimise the impact of cognitive heuristics on vulnerable populations such as the homeless it is important to humanise them and provide easy to understand information that is contrary to the stereotype narrative. By emphasising the similarities between homeless people and non-homeless people we are able to break down the cognitive biases that relegate homeless people to the outgroup.

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