Gerd Gigerenzer & Henry Brighton on Heuristics in Human Decision Making

December 2011
Gerd Gigerenzer

Gerd Gigerenzer & Henry Brighton talk with ScienceWatch.com and answer a few questions about this New Hot Paper in the field of Psychiatry/Psychology. The paper describes the major discoveries in the study of heuristics, and presents a new explanation for why heuristics enable organisms to make accurate inferences in uncertain environments.

Article: Homo Heuristicus: Why Biased Minds Make Better Inferences

Authors: Gigerenzer, G; Brighton, H

Journal: TOP COGN SCI, 1 (1): 107-143 JAN 2009
* Max Planck Inst Human Dev, Lentzeal Lee 94, D-14195 Berlin, Germany.
* Max Planck Inst Human Dev, D-14195 Berlin, Germany.


SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

The paper describes the major discoveries in the study of heuristics, and presents a new explanation for why heuristics enable organisms to make accurate inferences in uncertain environments. Relative to models which optimize, heuristics are traditionally seen as strategies which reduce effort at the expense of accuracy.

This paper explains why heuristics, by ignoring information, allow the decision maker to both reduce effort and improve accuracy. More generally, our work examines why what is rational in a risky world, where probabilities are known or easily measurable, is not necessarily rational in an uncertain world.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

Henry BrightonThe strength of the paper is that it does all three. First, we frame heuristics as effective responses to the statistical problem known as the bias/variance dilemma. This places on a firmer statistical footing the idea that ignoring information can be beneficial, and why biased minds can make better inferences. Second, we set out the key methodological principles which have emerged from scores of experimental studies examining heuristic use in humans. This methodological angle to the paper attracted a commentary article, to which we have responded. Finally, we trace the historical development of heuristics and propose 10 simple heuristics which we see as crucial to human decision making.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

For decisions that really matter, received wisdom tells us to integrate all available information, and weigh up the pros and cons for each alternative. Our research explains why, in an uncertain world, we often make better decisions by focusing on one good reason and ignoring potentially complex relationships between relevant factors. Heuristics are precise models of these simple strategies, and our paper describes the emerging science of heuristics.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

One of us (GG) is a psychologist and the director of the research group, while the other (HB) is a computational modeler of evolutionary and adaptive systems. Our research group thrives on the challenge of getting researchers from different disciplines to focus on one question: How do people make decisions in uncertain world, where information is sparse and time is limited?

The research we report in this paper is the culmination of several years of such collaborations between, for instance, psychologists, economists, biologists, and computer scientists. Setting and rising to these challenges is key to our success.

"The paper describes the major discoveries in the study of heuristics, and presents a new explanation for why heuristics enable organisms to make accurate inference in uncertain environments."

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

The critical questions facing our research program include identifying which strategies decision makers use to make inferences in an uncertain world, uncovering how decision makers adaptively select between these strategies, and explaining how this process is driven by the structure of the environment. These questions center on the problem of unpacking what we term the "adaptive toolbox." Rather than a general purpose mental calculus, the metaphor of the adaptive toolbox views cognition as relying on a toolbox of specialized tools, each one tuned to its own ecological niche.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The basic research reported in the paper drives an applied research program dedicated to improving statistical thinking, which we see as one of the most important and neglected cognitive competencies in modern society. Crucially, understanding how the mind is adapted to an uncertain world has direct implications on how to present uncertainties in a transparent way, and reason about them effectively.

Our pioneering work in this area led to the creation of an associated research group, The Harding Center for Risk Literacy, which was launched in 2009. The Harding Center focuses on improving, for example, physicians' and patients' health literacy, numeracy, and graph literacy.

The social and political implications of our research are often quite direct, and have had a strong impact on contemporary issues such as informed decision making, cancer screening, and vaccination programs. More broadly, the study of heuristics shows how complex problems often need simple solutions. Together with the Bank of England, our work is being applied to the financial crisis, where we are developing simple heuristics for a safer world.

Gerd Gigerenzer
Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition
Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Berlin, Germany

Henry Brighton
Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition
Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Berlin, Germany

Keywords: 
heuristics, decision making, inferences, rationality, uncertainty, induction, reason, ecological rationality, bounded rationality, sensorimotor skills, empirical tests, neural networks, linear models, hot hand, recognition

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