Because of their simplicity, heuristics have long been viewed as inferior to rational thought. In particular, people tend to assume that it is always a good thing to think long and hard about everything, consciously deliberating different potential outcomes and rationally weighing different pros and cons. However, an emerging field of research is questioning this traditional view. Gerd Gigerenzer recently summarized more than a decade of research concerning the role of heuristics in human decision making. Gigerenzer argues that heuristics aren’t a cognitive shortcoming at all. Rather, the author postulates that over millions of years of human evolution, such “smart” and adaptive heuristics have successfully guided our decision making in various (uncertain) environments. In short, we use all kinds of heuristics on a daily basis and apparently we do so for a good reason.
To illustrate, consider a popular heuristic that people often employ, the so-called “recognition heuristic.” The recognition heuristic states that “if one of two objects is recognized and the other is not then we should infer that the recognized object has the higher value.” Such a decision rule may sound overly simplistic but various studies have supported its use and effectiveness. For example, in three studies predicting stock market performance, portfolios of stocks based on recognition (a constructed set of the most recognized stocks) outperformed (on average) managed funds, chance portfolios and stock expert predictions. Similarly, another study showed that when German students were asked to evaluate pairs of American colleges, the German students predicted their relative ranking with better accuracy than their American peers (based solely on their recognition of the university’s name). Thus, in some cases, having limited knowledge can actually lead to more accurate outcomes. If you’re still not entirely convinced, consider the fact that you are able to judge the appeal of a face in less than 13 milliseconds. That’s right, research strongly suggests that your mind has decided on the attractiveness of a face before you are even consciously aware of the fact that you have seen one.
In conclusion, when pressured for time and faced with many competing options, “fast and frugal” decision making can (potentially) enhance the quality of our decisions. Selecting your future spouse based on the recognition heuristic might be overdoing it a bit, but when overwhelmed with potential choices at a speed-dating event, supermarket aisle or restaurant menu, going with a simple heuristic is a reasonable option. If anything, over millions of years of human evolution, “smart” intuitive heuristics that guide our decision making have helped us get to where we are today. Perhaps nowadays there is a tendency to over-think things. We might all benefit from listening a little more to our gut. Perhaps if I had done so a few years ago, my speed-dating experience would have turned out a little more successful as well.
Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.