Article: Heuristics — Tools for an uncertain world

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham H. Maslow (1966, p. 15f.)



Hansjörg Neth, Gerd Gigerenzer

Heuristics: Tools for an uncertain world

We distinguish between situations of risk, where all options, consequences, and probabilities are known, and situations of uncertainty, where they are not.  Probability theory and statistics are the best tools for deciding under risk but not under uncertainty, which characterizes most relevant problems that humans have to solve.  Uncertainty requires simple heuristics that are robust rather than optimal. We propose to think of the mind as an adaptive toolbox and introduce the descriptive study of heuristics, their building blocks, and the core capacities they exploit. The question of which heuristic to select for which class of problems is the topic of the normative study of ecological rationality.  We discuss earlier views on the nature of heuristics that maintained that heuristics are always less accurate because they ignore information and demand less effort.  Contrary to this accuracy–effort trade-off view, heuristics can lead to more accurate inferences—under uncertainty—than strategies that use more information and computation.  The study of heuristics opens up a new perspective on the nature of both cognition and rationality.  In a world of uncertainty, Homo sapiens might well be called Homo heuristicus.

Table 1: Three realms of rationality: Certainty, risk, and uncertainty.

Selecting an appropriate tool crucially depends on the current realm of rationality. Whereas logic and statistics work well under certainty and risk, heuristics can be (more) successful tools under conditions of uncertainty.

Summary:  Heuristics are adaptive tools that ignore information to make fast and frugal decisions that are accurate and robust under uncertainty.  Whereas probability theory and statistics are appropriate strategies under risk, using simple heuristics is rational under uncertainty.

Keywords:  Heuristics, risk vs. uncertainty, adaptive toolbox, ecological rationality, optimality, robustness.

Reference:  Neth, H., & Gigerenzer, G. (2015).  Heuristics: Tools for an uncertain world.  In R. Scott & S. Kosslyn (Eds.), Emerging trends in the social and behavioral sciences: An interdisciplinary, searchable, and linkable resource (pp. 1–18).  New York, NY: Wiley Online Library.  doi: 10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0394

Related:  Homo heuristicus in the financial world | Heuristiken im Controlling und Management Reporting | Rational task analysis (RTA) | FFTrees: An R toolbox to create FFTs

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