The Representativeness Heuristic

In this video I describe another heuristic identified by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The representativeness heuristic is a shortcut that we use when attempting to estimate the odds of something being true, such as whether an interview profile came from a lawyer or an engineer. Rather than using relevant base rate information, participants showed a tendency to rely on prototypes when making this decision.

 

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Amazon) http://amzn.to/2nAWnop

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Video Transcript:

Hi I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video we’re going to look at another example of a heuristic identified by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

So for this I’d like you to imagine a hypothetical situation. Here I want you to imagine that I have conducted 100 interviews with 70 engineers and 30 lawyers and what I’m going to do is I’m going to mix up all of these assessments and I’m going to randomly pull out a profile and read this person’s profile to you. Your job is to guess what are the odds you think this person is a lawyer or an engineer.

Ok, so we’ll start with, let’s imagine I pull out the profile of a man named Adam and I tell you that Adam seemed to be outgoing, he was interested in politics, and he displayed particular skill in argument. So what do you think about Adam? What are the odds Adam is a lawyer or an engineer?

Ok, let’s look at another profile. Let’s imagine I pull out a profile of Dick here. It says Dick is a thirty year old man. He’s married with no children, he’s shown high ability and motivation, and has been quite successful in his field, and he’s well-liked by his colleagues. So what do you think about Dick? What are the odds Dick is a lawyer or an engineer?

So if you were thinking about these people here and you thought Adam was probably a lawyer and you thought Dick was a little harder, you might have said, you know, “I couldn’t really tell, 50/50 chance. I mean he could be a lawyer, he could be an engineer, I really don’t know”. Well if you thought this way, which is how most of the participants in Tversky and Kahneman’s study thought, then you’ve demonstrated this representativeness heuristic.

So why is that? Well what you’re doing if you thought this way is you’re comparing to your prototypes of what you think an engineer or a lawyer is, right? You’re trying to decide which category to put this person in and so you compare them to sort of a mental prototype of what is a lawyer or what is an engineer. If you were thinking this way when trying to figure out whether Adam or Dick was a lawyer or an engineer, you were doing it wrong.

there’s a much better way to determine this because what you were ignoring is the base rate information. All right, I actually told you at the start the odds that either one of them is a lawyer or an engineer, right? I told you there were down right here. You probably didn’t include that in your analysis of each profile right? If you include that, you would just say engineer every time, right? for Dick, “well 50/50 chance” and that’s actually what many participants said. It’s an equal chance of lawyer or engineer.

Well, no 70/30, I mean he’s probably an engineer and even with the case for Adam, you know, I told you he’s interested in politics and skilled in argument. That was to sort of prime your prototype of what you might associate with lawyers. But of course there are engineers who are interested in politics and there are engineers who are good at argument and so, you know, the odds are still very much in favor of engineer even though he sounds like a lawyer.

Ok, so what’s happening here? In the availability heuristic, remember, we said that our mind substituted. It substitutes a different question. We’re not good at estimating frequency and so what we do is we just see how easily does it come to mind, right? And we answer that question instead. So what’s the question here that triggers this representativeness heuristic and what question do we do we replace it with?

Well the idea is we’re not good at calculating odds. We don’t like doing probability; our minds are really not equipped to do this. So whenever we ask this question, as I was doing here, which is “what are the odds of something, what are the odds of X?”, you know, in this case it was “what are the odds this person is a lawyer?”. Well as soon as we start thinking about this our mind says, “you know what I’m not doing odds. There’s probability, these calculations and statistics, it’s very very complicated, let’s not try to actually do all of that. That’s going to take a long time and, you know, I don’t have the time to do that. Instead let’s take a shortcut. Let’s answer a different question.”

So the shortcut is to say “how well does this match my prototype?”. Now here’s a question that we can answer. How well does this match my prototype of that. So instead of “what are the odds of this, this person is a lawyer” say well “how well does this person match my prototype of a lawyer?”. There’s a question that we can answer.

We can say “Oh Adam, he sounds like a lawyer, you know, he fits my profile, my prototype fits, my sort of stereotypes about what a lawyer is or what an engineer is”. So the idea is well if it matches my prototype then I’ll say that the odds are high and if it doesn’t match my prototype I’ll say that the odds are low.

Of course we can think about other situations beyond this hypothetical here where this is a real problem. We don’t want to just be making decisions based on how well things match our prototype. I mean imagine that you were interviewing for a job and maybe what’s really happening is it’s just a matter of seeing how well you match the prototype of the interviewer for this particular position. Well what’s my prototype of this position and does this person match? Ok, they seem to match, give them the job, right?

We don’t want that sort of thing happening and it’s even worse if you think about other situations. I mean, what are the odds this person is a criminal? What are the odds this person is a terrorist? Here we can see why things like racial profiling occur because what happens is that’s a really hard question to answer.

What are the odds that this person is a terrorist? How do we go about doing that? How well does this person match my prototype of a terrorist, in other words, how well do they match the stereotypes that I have about what, you know, who terrorists are? Of course that’s not a very fair way of trying to answer this question, right? We’re going to ignore other potentially relevant information when we’re comparing to a prototype so there’s a danger to this representativeness heuristic and how it can lead us to make errors that can have important consequences.

Ok, so that’s this representativeness heuristic; the idea that we make comparisons to prototypes rather than actually looking at the base rates of things and actually trying to figure out the odds of something occurring. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more. Thanks for watching!

The Availability Heuristic

In this video I provide an introduction to behavioral economics and the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman by describing a heuristic we use when attempting to assess the frequency of events. The availability heuristic is a shortcut that estimates frequency based on how available an event is to us, or how readily we can bring examples to mind. This can cause us to make errors in estimating frequency because ease of recalling events does not necessarily mean that they are more frequent; they may simply be more memorable (such as terrorist attacks, planes crashes, and child abductions). This can cause us to overestimate the likelihood of certain events occurring, while we underestimate the risks posed by events which are actually more frequent.

 

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Amazon)
http://amzn.to/2nAWnop

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video and the next few videos we’re going to look at some examples of heuristics.

So heuristics are these mental shortcuts that we use when we’re solving problems and making decisions. The heuristics that we’ll look at are mostly going to come from the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman essentially provided the foundation for a new field of study known as behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics is a combination of economics and psychology and it questions this traditional economic assumption that people act rationally, right? That people make rational choices in order to optimize their output. What behavioral economics does is show actually people don’t act rationally very often. They rely on heuristics when they’re making decisions and this means that they’re going to make predictable types of errors in their decision-making.

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for this research in shared the prize although unfortunately he had passed away in 1996 and wasn’t eligible. If you’d like to find out more about Tversky and Kahneman’s research and behavioral economics in general I highly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Ok, so let’s look at an example of one of these heuristics. This first one is the availability heuristic. So the availability heuristic is something that might occur whenever we’re trying to answer the question of “how frequent is X?”. This is a hard question to answer. So here’s an example that Tversky and Kahneman used. They asked participants to estimate “do you think English has more words that start with the letter K or more words that have K as the third letter?”.

You can think about this yourself. Which do you think is more frequent? If you’re like most of the participants you probably think that there’s more words that start with the letter K than have K as the third letter. If you think this way, you’re wrong because there’s actually nearly three times as many words that have K as the third letter than words that start with the letter K. So why was this so hard to get correct?

Well it turns out this question of how frequent something is is really difficult. How frequent is X? It’s like I don’t know where to begin answering that question. How do I estimate the frequency of something?

So our minds really aren’t equipped to answer this question but rather than admitting defeat what they do is they substitute a different question. This is a question that’s a little bit easier for our mind to answer. So what’s the question that we substitute? The question that we ask instead and we don’t realize that we’ve switched them is “how easily does X come to mind?”.

There’s a question that can be answered. Just try to bring it to mind and see how easy or hard it is and the idea is we make the assumption that if something is easy to bring to mind, you know, if I can come up with a lot of examples of something, it’s probably common. So it’s probably a frequent event but if it’s really hard to bring something to mind I can’t come up with any examples then it’s probably not very frequent.

This is probably what happened with this question about the letter K. The thing is it’s easy to bring words to mind based on their first letter. It’s hard to bring them to mind based on their third letter but this actually doesn’t have anything to do with their frequency, right? It comes with how we think about words. It’s easy to bring them to mind by the first letter even if they’re not particularly frequent. So you can think about words that start with the letter K and you can come up with a list pretty easily; kitchen, kite, kick, kangaroo, but when you try to think about words with K as their third letter, it’s hard to do.

We’re not used to thinking about words this way and so it’s not a question that you normally ask and even if you see words with K as the third letter you might not acknowledge it. So it’s harder to bring words of that ilk to mind. Ok, so of course this heuristic is used more than just when we’re thinking about words and letters, right?

It’s really used whenever we have this question about frequency. How frequent is X? That’s hard to do so our mind uses a shortcut, says “well how easily can I think of examples of it? I’ll estimate frequency based on that”.

This is why people are more afraid to ride on a plane than in a car, even though they’re much more likely to be injured or killed in a car crash than in a plane crash because when people ask “How frequently do planes crash?” they can think of examples of plane crashes really easily because they’re memorable right? We see big news stories about them and so people think about plane crashes and they bring several to mind but when it comes to car crashes, there’s thousands and thousands of car crashes every year that we simply don’t hear about. So we can’t bring those examples to mind and as a result we assume that car crashes are less frequent than they actually are and that plane crashes are more frequent than they actually are.

Now we also see this when parents think about their children’s behavior. We have parents that won’t let their children walk to school because of fear of child abductions. Child abductions are incredibly rare; they almost never happen, right? But when they do happen, we hear about them. The big news stories, this means we can bring them to mind easily and that means we think that they’re more frequent than they actually are. And other behaviors that are actually real risks to children that are common, we don’t think of as being much of a problem. So I mean parents will drive their kids to school even though the risk of being injured in a car crash is much greater than the risk of being abducted by a predator.

Or, you know, we let children eat hot dogs. The risk of choking to death on a hotdog is a greater risk to a child than an abduction or a risk of drowning, but, you know, we let kids go to barbecues and pool parties without a second thought. Yet those are things that post real risks to children, whereas the risk of child abduction is nearly zero but because of how we bring things to mind and how we estimate frequency, we are likely to overestimate the risk of certain things and underestimate the risks of others.

Ok, so that’s essentially the availability heuristic; this idea that we aren’t good at estimating frequency and so we base it on how available things are to our mind. How easily do they come to mind, and we estimate frequency based on that. Ok, I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!

Problem Solving

In this video I introduce several concepts related to problem-solving. I begin with mental set, which refers to our tendency to rely on approaches that have worked in the past. Similarly, functional fixedness refers to our tendency to think of tools as having single fixed uses and this may cause us to overlook novel uses for them. Convergent thinking refers to approaches leading to a single solution, while divergent thinking refers to coming up with many possible solutions which may not be related to one another.

 

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video I want to introduce some ideas related to problem solving.

So how do we solve problems? Well, sometimes the way that we solve problems is that we don’t actually have to solve them. We have a memory for a solution and we simply need to bring it to mind.

For instance, if I ask you to solve two plus two you can immediately tell me that the answer is four and you don’t really have to go through any problem-solving steps. Whereas at some point in the past you did actually have to solve this problem, you had to work at it and find the solution and you

probably did this by physically representing the problem, you know, on your fingers and then counting one two three four. Ok, two plus two is four and now you have that solution and you memorize it and you can bring it to mind later when you need it and it’s not going to change.

So sometimes we simply call on our memory for how we’ve solved the problem in the past. Now this can lead us to a problem in that sometimes we call upon old solutions that aren’t going to work for new problems and this brings us to what’s called mental set.

So mental set is the idea that we use a problem-solving approach that has worked in the past but it might not necessarily work for a new problem but it’s sort of the first thing that we go to. So for instance if you’ve had problems with your computer in the past and you’ve solved these problems simply by restarting your computer and that’s resolved the issue then if you have a new problem with your computer you’re likely to try restarting your computer to solve this problem, even if that solution isn’t necessarily going to work. That would be a demonstration of your mental set. You have an approach to solving computer problems which is to restart the computer and you try that with a new problem even though you don’t know if it’s going to work and it may not resolve the issue that you’re having.

Now we also have this tendency to rely on past solutions when it comes to how we use tools because we tend to think of the usefulness of tools in terms of how we’ve used them before or how they’re generally used and so when we’re referring to tools we call this functional fixedness and this is the idea that the functions of tools are seen as fixed, they don’t change. We use a tool for a particular purpose and that purpose only.

So for instance if you were trying to hang a picture on your wall and you need to hammer a nail into the wall you might go and get your tool box and then you open it up and you remember that you lent your hammer to a friend last weekend and you forgot to get it back. Now you might think well “I guess I can’t hang up the picture today” instead of realizing that there’s a wrench in front of you and you could use the wrench to drive a nail into the wall and in this case that would pretty much work just as well as a hammer. You might overlook this because of functional fixedness. You think of hammers are for hammering things wrenches are for wrenching things and you fail to see that you could use the wrench as a hammer.

This functional fixedness is often described as an error in problem-solving but I don’t really think it’s an error because a lot of the time functional fixedness is a good thing. It keeps us from damaging our tools and ruining their ability to perform their special task that they’re designed for. So we don’t always want to think of all the possible uses for something. I mean sure you could use your cell phone to hammer a nail into a wall that would probably work. It would get the job done but in doing that you destroy the functions that your cell phone is specifically designed to perform. In that case functional fixedness isn’t really an error. Sure you don’t think of using your cell phone as a hammer but most of the time that’s probably a good thing.

Ok, so thinking about the different uses for tools brings us to consider the difference between convergent thinking and divergent thinking. So what do these refer to?

Convergent thinking is when we have a problem that has a single solution and so all the steps that we take, all the approaches that we have should all point us to this one solution. Think of it as we have a single solution and everything we do should point us toward that solution.

For instance, if you’re solving an algebra equation and you’re solving for X and there’s one answer that X can be, then each of the steps that you take in solving this problem should get you closer to finding that answer of what is X, right? So we have many approaches that all point us to a single solution. This is convergent thinking. Everything converges onto one solution.

In contrast, we also have what’s called divergent thinking and in divergent thinking we diverge from a single point. We have a starting point and then we have multiple solutions and these solutions sort of go off in different directions and by that I mean they may not be related to one another at all. So this is a bit more creative, right? We have to come up with new unrelated ideas for maybe how we could use a particular tool. That would be an example of divergent thinking.

So if you took your hammer and you said “what are all the possible things that I could use a hammer for?”, you’re going to come up with many different answers and they’re not going to be related to one another. So you say “okay I could use a hammer as a paperweight or I could use it to help me reach something that’s just out of reach. If I had a hammer and then I’d get a little a little bit longer reach and maybe I could you know knock something off the shelf” or you could say “well maybe I could use it to prop a door open so I don’t get stuck outside or, you know, I could use it as a weapon if I needed to or maybe I could use it as a clock, in which case it’s always hammer time”.

But anyway this shows us that we have multiple different solutions to a problem and they’re not related to one another and so this creativity comes from this divergent thinking; trying to come up with new unrelated solutions and this is something we might not do as often as convergent thinking where we’re focused on finding a single solution to a single problem.

Ok, so that’s mental set and functional fixedness and the difference between convergent and divergent thinking. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!