Benefits of Heuristics

In this video I end the unit on cognition with the reminder that heuristics are not just about making errors in decision-making. Most of the time heuristics work well and they serve as useful tools for making sense of the world and being able to make decisions with limited information. In some cases they can even make less information more useful for getting to the correct answer, as demonstrated by Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigenrenzer’s study on the recognition heuristic. Our penchant for shortcuts also helps us to develop greater efficiency and enables the lightning-fast decision-making of chess grandmasters, baseball batters, and chicken sexers. As we make our way through the world heuristics may occasionally cause us to stumble but we shouldn’t ignore those times they enable us to leap.

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In the past few videos we’ve seen examples of heuristics, these mental shortcuts, and we’ve seen how they can lead us astray and cause us to make errors in our decision making. So I want to end this unit on a more positive note and remind you that heuristics are not just about errors.

They’re not simply things that we do wrong, ok, because most of the time heuristics are useful. Most of the time they help us to make decisions, they help us to simplify the world and organize this massive amount of information that we could be processing to break it down and to make decisions and avoid becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by indecision.

So with this in mind we should think, as Gerd Gigenrenzer has written, that we should think of heuristics as tools rather than as biases. So with that in mind I’d like to look at one study by Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer on what they called the recognition heuristic. So what they did was they asked participants to answer a fairly simple question.

They asked them to guess whether they thought the city of San Antonio had a larger population or the city of San Diego had a larger population. So which do you think has a larger population? There were two groups of participants in this study and the first group didn’t do so well; they were about sixty-two percent accurate in getting the correct answer. The second group, however, was a hundred percent accurate. Every single person in this group got this question right.

So who are these groups of people? Well, it might surprise you the first group of people were Americans and the second group were Germans. Does this mean that Germans have a better knowledge of US population and geography than Americans? Well, no, because it turns out when they were asked the Germans revealed how they were able to answer this question so well. The answer?

They had never heard of San Antonio. So they had heard of San Diego, they hadn’t heard of San Antonio and so they correctly surmised that the city they had heard of is probably the more populous one. And so they all guessed San Diego. Americans, on the other hand, had generally heard of both cities and were unsure which one might have a larger population and this actually caused them to do worse on this test.

This is an example of this recognition heuristic and it shows how we’re able to make decisions and try to answer questions based on very limited information and this is important because most of the decisions we make involve limited information. We generally don’t know everything about the things we have to make decisions about and so we take shortcuts and we sort of give it our best guess and very often this is actually a good idea.

This shortcut actually works and so this is another demonstration of the idea that heuristics are not always about making errors. In fact, if we think about how the heuristics we’ve talked about in previous videos were identified it took very clever experiments by Tversky and Kahneman in order to show that these heuristics first existed because we’re generally not aware that we use them and second that they could lead us to errors.

They had to design these very clever examples just to show that the heuristic was leading us astray. So we should remember that heuristics are important, they help us to make decisions and very often they help us to make the right decision. We can also see their power in the fact that our minds are constantly searching for shortcuts and this is a good thing because it helps us to become more efficient.

We can practice skills and get better and better at them and so we see this in chess masters who can look at a board of chess pieces and they can actually remember them quite well because they have a a great deal of practice at looking at different arrangements on the board and amateur chess players, however, aren’t able to do this. We can also see this in baseball players. The fact that they can determine whether or not to swing is amazing because the amount of time between when the pitcher releases the ball and when the batter has to begin coordinating the muscle movements to swing the bat is so incredibly brief it should be impossible and yet they’re able to do it. They’re able to watch the pitcher and determine whether something is going to be a good pitch or not in a fraction of a second.

We even see this in more obscure occupations like chicken sexers. So chicken sexers are people who can look at a chicken and determine whether it’s male or female. This is important because we want to identify females more quickly if we’re going to be using them for harvesting eggs. So chicken sexers can look at a newly hatched chick and determine if it’s a male or female based on ambiguous genitals. In fact, they’re not even sure how they’re able to do it. They can’t really describe exactly what it is they see to determine that this is a male or a female.

So when we think about heuristics we should remember that they’re often beneficial; they help us to make decisions and they keep us from being paralyzed or overwhelmed by other information that might not be relevant. So even though we make mistakes and we do have errors that result from these heuristics and we should be aware of these errors so that we can try to avoid them or we can talk about things like designing forms better or choosing default options that will be more helpful, we shouldn’t forget that most of the time heuristics help us to make decisions and they allow us to solve problems even when we have incomplete information.

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Thanks for watching!