The “It's Just Like...” Heuristic

Why feeling that you understand a new idea, is a sign that you didn't.

By @mathiasverraes
Published on 22 May 2021



There’s a common bias in the tech industry, and I imagine everywhere. When there’s a new idea, and some very smart people will say that the new idea X is really just the old idea Y. The idea could be a model for looking at things, a way of doing things, a technology, a pattern. People will make the case that X is nothing but Y in new packaging.

Brain Rewards

Sometimes it really is just new packaging. But:

Your brain rewards you for classifying new information into existing buckets. Looking for similarities costs less energy than understanding new differences. When you say “Oh I get it, it’s just like …”, then it probably is not “just like”. That’s very counterintuitive, because that “oh I get it” feeling is intuition, not reason.1 You feel good about the insight, so it’s very tricky to then go “Oh I get it so I must be wrong”.

Proclaiming that the new idea is the same as the old idea, gives you permission not to investigate it deeply2. You can stick to your existing worldview, in which you are an expert in the old idea. New ideas are merely repackaged old ones, not worthy of our consideration. Everything was already invented, nothing to see here, move along. Balance has been restored.

Sometimes this habit is intellectual laziness, sometimes it’s intellectual dishonesty. Sometimes there’s the undertone of superiority (“I’m still the smartest person in the room”). Sometimes it’s an unconscious attempt to preserve the power structures that are threatened by new ideas. In the worst cases, it’s a deliberate attempt.

But mostly, there’s such a firehose of information, that staying fully up to date on even a single topic is impossible. We should be forgiven for not knowing and understanding and keeping up with everything, even if our job is knowing and understanding and keeping up with everything.

Applying the “It’s Just Like” Heuristic

Still, there’s a remedy. We can use a low energy heuristic3, to catch our brain in the act of using a low energy classification. It works like this:

Be aware when you are presented with new information. When you feel “Oh I get it, it’s just like X”, then ask: “So what makes the new thing different from X?” You ask it to yourself, as a starting point for deeper analysis, and to keep you intellectually honest. And you ask it to others, because by giving them your frame of reference, they can explain the value of the idea better. And you can ask it when others dismiss an idea too eagerly. This question has been a powerful learning tool for me.

The Packaging Heuristic

A bonus heuristic: Sometimes the packaging is the new idea. New packaging gives old ideas new wings. The packaging in itself can be a valuable contribution. It can re-frame the problem, make the solution more appealing, highlight the benefits better, and get it in front of the right people. By dismissing it as mere packaging, we rob others of discovering it. We overvalue originality, but not everything needs to be original to be valuable. It takes a village to raise an idea.

More Heuristics

  • The Legacy Mirror Heuristic helps you evaluate new ideas by swapping their chronology.
  • I wrote about the “It’s Just Like…” Heuristic in 2014 as well, but the 2021 one here is much better.

Footnotes

  1. The low energy classification of information and the the higher energy thinking fit in Daniel Kahneman’s two modes of thoughts. He calls them System 1 (fast, instinctive and emotional) and System 2 (slow, deliberative, logical). Coherence bias is at play here, and Reductionism, as well as Substitution bias, and “What You See Is All There Is”. See “Thinking Fast & Slow” by Kahneman 

  2. That was the polite version. In my notes, I had a line about “a bunch of old farts sitting around congratulating each other on knowing everything”, which happens a lot on social media. Usually someone brings up an obscure author who was the misunderstood genius that already invented the thing. I wasn’t going to publish this bit but meh, YOLO. 

  3. Fast and Frugal Heuristics limit the information search, and do not involve much computation. See “Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart” Gigerenzer, Todd et al.