Mental Heuristics & Historical Development
A heuristic can be defined as a rule of thumb that helps a human being to think and act efficiently through directing his or her thinking in a useful direction. It can be seen as an informal method of solving problems and helps a human to rapidly arrive at a solution which though may not be optimal; it is reasonably close to the true one. As such, heuristics are educated guesses, common senses or intuitive judgments that help an individual to arrive at a better solution based on past experience and intuition.
They present strategies which are useful for human beings to make decisions and arrive at solutions given loosely applicable information (Tamboroni, et al, 2007, p. 40). In psychology, heuristics have been termed as rules of the thumb which are simple and hard coded by the process of learning or through evolutionary processes. In essence, they represent the methods in which human being when faced with complex problems or limited information arrives at solutions, decisions or reasonably close judgments.
In most of the situations, the rules are widely applicable but in some cases lead to the development of cognitive biases (Favley, et al, 2005, p. 32). In the field of psychology, there are various theorized heuristics which include anchoring and adjustment heuristic, availability heuristic and representative heuristic. Other include familiarity heuristic, recognition heuristic, simulation heuristic, scarcity heuristic, effort heuristic among others. Over the years, many psychologists have theorized such heuristics based on research conducted among human beings.
However, it is commonly agreed that many of these heuristics stems from simulation heuristics which was first theorized by Kahneman and Tversky in 1982 in their research on heuristics and the way in which they help human beings to use simplified mental strategies while thinking about complex problems. In the late 1970s Kahneman and Tversky produced a series of papers which helped in revolutionizing academic research conducted in relation to how human beings make judgments or how they arrive at certain decisions given various scenarios (Code, Smith, 2000, p. 28).
The central idea as seen in their work was that under uncertainty, human beings made judgments based on limited number of simplifying heuristics as opposed to extensive algorithmic processing. The concept of heuristics then rapidly passed to other academic field such as law, economics, philosophy, medicine and political sciences. In itself, the idea of use of heuristics was revolutionary in the sense that it simultaneously offered an alternative way of explaining human error without necessarily invoking motivated irrationality and it questioned the descriptive adequacy the then existing ideal models of judgment (Linden, Frese, 2003, p.
74). According to Kahneman and Tversky, simulation heuristic can be seen as explaining the reason as to why individuals experience regrets and make use of counterfactual thinking. It involves the ways in which a given individual will likely thinks about the occurrence of an outcome (Mcquire, 1997, p. 93). According to the studies carried by Kahneman and his counter part, there exist five instances in which individuals revert to the use of simulation heuristic.
In this regard, the first instance is the simulation of a certain given event and which an individual posses no prior information about but is forced to make general prediction. A good example here is a situation in which two strangers meet for the first time and each is forced to predict the outcome of their meeting given the fact that neither of them had prior knowledge of the meeting (Metcalfe, 1998, p. 91). The second instance is where by an individual is forced to judge the probability of an event occurring given the availability of a specified target state or specified initial stage.
Also simulation heuristics can be used for prediction purposes or for counterfactual assessment in which an individual thinks about how a situation would have occurred if certain aspects or elements of the situation had been changed (Coleman, 2004, p. 77). In this regard, an individual can regret about the outcome of his deeds and think about how the outcome would have been if he had changed the deeds before embarking into action. In their studies, Kahneman and Tversky gives an example of the Nazi regime posing the question as to what would have been the outcome of world war II if the Nazis had been able to build an atomic bomb.
The fifth instance in which simulation heuristics can be used according to Kahneman and Tversky is where an individual is forced to access causality or where he or she has to determine whether a certain given event caused the occurrence of another particular event. In this sense, an individual would simulate in his or her mind whether the occurrence of a given event increased the propensity of occurrence of the subsequent event (Auger, 2004, p. 61). In studying simulation heuristics, Kahneman and Tversky conducted various hypothetical situations that participants were given to read and respond to.
The situations were in accordance with the five instances created by the two scholars while explaining simulation heuristics. They made use of many hypothetical situations in accessing the manner in which people tend to view the outcomes of events surrounding them and arrived at the conclusion that the more individuals could simulate certain situations in their minds, the more these individuals felt that the situations could really occur in real life (Faust, 1993, p. 54). However, they warned of three ways in which decisions arrived at as a result of simulation heuristics could turn out to be incorrect or misleading.
Such decisions could be flawed when individuals over estimate the likelihood of certain events while at the same time underestimating the probability of other events occurring (Gaglio, 2002, p. 25). Reasons behind this would be where an individual underestimate the likelihood of a certain event and where smaller changes take place to alter the outcome or the consequences associated with the event or where an individual is biased to a certain situation in which dramatic changes take place (Halikias, 2000, p. 44).
As such, the two concluded that though simulation heuristic was important in explaining how individuals conceptualized the outcomes of events, it is however associated with systematic and large errors risk as a result of the nature of the inaccuracy with which individuals can simulate probabilities and outcomes in their minds. Kahneman and Tversky conducted many researches and experiments in trying to prove that human being used heuristics as opposed to rationality to find solutions to problems facing them.
For example, while trying to prove the simulation heuristic, they used a hypothetical experiment which they gave correspondents to read and respond about two people who were late for their flights (Suppes, 1994, p. 36). The first of the two missed his flight because he was late by thirty while the second was late because his flight had been delayed by thirty minutes and he was two minutes late.
The response given by the correspondents showed that they felt much for the first person than for the second since they must have simulated their minds to imagine of the agony the first person was going through for having missed his flight (Durre, Kinner, 2006, p. 29). Many developments have occurred in relation to heuristics in the field of psychology. However, much of the research conducted in relation to use of heuristics by human beings while making judgments can be conceptualized in three ways.
First, researchers tend or made use of evidence collected from various participants and which showed that the way in which individuals assessed of the likelihood and risks associated with some situations do not agree with the laws of probability (Gibbs, Fuery, p. 38). Secondly, the researchers embarked on arguments as to the importance of these demonstrations among the proponents of human rationality and those that were by then responsible for empirical demonstration.
Third, in order to understand the history, it is imperative to take a look at the earlier contributions of judgments based on heuristics by examining empirical, methodological and theoretical contributions which have over the years been influential to the concept of heuristics and psychology in general (Suldo, Sheffer, 2008, p. 66). In 1954, Paul Meehl made an empirical contribution when he complied evidence which compared clinical prediction with actuarial methods. Here, he concluded that the actuarial methods or formulas applied almost did better as compared to the expert clinical prediction methods used.
Moreover, the research conducted by Paul uncovered a huge and sharp discrepancy clinicians’ success record and their performance assessments. Eventually, the research inspired further research on faulty reasoning processes which yielded inferences which were compelling on one hand and mistaking on the other (Power, 2003, p. 108). Following this research, Ward Edwards in 1960s offered a major methodological contribution when he introduced the Bayesian analyses to psychology. As a result, he provided a normative standard with which individuals everyday judgments could be compared.
He later conducted further research which clearly showed that individuals intuitive judgments did not correspond exactly with the ideal normative standard he had previously provided. This later research increased interest in relation to the causes of suboptimal strategies for improvement and performance (Durlak, 1997, p. 17). Around the same time, another scholar by the name Herbert Simon made a major theoretical contribution which to date has helped much in the study of mental heuristics. His contention was that full rationality as implied by the rational choice model could be termed as an unrealistic standard of explaining human judgment.
In its place, he proposed a more limited criterion for the actual performance which has over the years been dubbed as the bounded rationality (Dunning, Hulzberg, 2003, p. 29). This rationality acknowledges the inherent processing limitations of the human mind. He argued that individuals reason and choose rationality only within the constraints and barriers imposed by their computational capacities and their limited search. He also discussed the simplifying heuristics that individuals employ to help effectively cope with these limitations.
He however did not reject the normative appeal of full information rational modes. It was through the inspirations of the above scholars that Kahneman and Tversky sought to develop their own perspective of bounded rationality. Despite the fact that the two scholars in their work acknowledged the role of limited processing capacity and task complexity in erroneous judgment, they were convinced that intuitive judgment processes were not merely simpler than what rational models demanded but that they were categorically of different kind.
They described three general heuristics including availability, anchoring and adjustment and representative heuristics. In this sense, availability heuristic refers to the process of making decisions and judgments based on the easiness of memory retrieval capacity. In other words, based on availability heuristic, an individual is able to make an estimate of the probability or the frequency of an event occurring by how fast or easy it is to that individual to make identify other examples of the event in question (Kahneman, Trersky, 2000, p. 19).
The judgment reached by such an individual may turn out to be correct but can also exhibit some errors in cases where availability is not correlated with objective and true frequency. On the other hand, representativeness heuristic represent strategies of problem judgment based on estimates made in relation to how similar a certain event seems to be to its given population. In other words, whether such an event seems to be similar to the process that produced it in the first place or how similar it is to the population it was taken from (Holyoak, 1990, p. 16).
For example, based on results taken from the study of a sample of a given population, an individual is capable of making a reasonable judgment pertaining others in the population. Still, anchoring and adjustment heuristic is the mental shortcut through which individuals arrive at certain problem judgments by first making a guess of the first approximation or what can be referred to as an anchor and then making subsequent adjustments to it on the basis of available information. As with all the other heuristics, it can provide an individual with a reasonable solution which may at times be erroneous.
According to them, these three heuristics underlie many intuitive judgments that individuals make under uncertainty. They suggested that these heuristics were efficient and simple since they tend to piggyback on the basic computations that the mind makes during evolution process. The earlier experiments conducted by Kahneman and Tversky involved the association of each heuristic with a set of biases or departures from the normative rationality theory. These set of biases served as signatures or markers of the associated heuristic.
For example, the use of availability heuristic can be seen as leading to error in cases where memory retrieval is a form of a biased cue to the actual frequency as a result of the tendency of an individual to recall and seek out dramatic cases or on the other hand, because of the tendency of the broader world to call attention to examples of restricted type. In their work, they argued that some of these biases were deviations from some objective or true value while many of them were violations of the basics laws of probability (Perkins, 1981, p. 20).
In their work, they distinguished between two type of agendas for the heuristic and biases program they had initiated. The positive agenda can be seen as elucidating the processes and strategies through which human beings make various difficult but important decisions judgments concerning the real world. In this regard, Kahneman and Tversky proposed representativeness, availability and anchoring and adjustment heuristics as a set of mental shortcuts which were highly efficient in providing solutions to judgmental problems and which are quite serviceable and subjectively compelling (Jordan, 2004, p. 43).
The negative agenda of the heuristic and biases program as conducted by the two scholars was to try and specify the conditions under which intuitive judgments can be accused of departing from the true laws of probability. The experience that Kahneman and his counterpart had gained while teaching statistics and the observations they had made in relation to predictions made in applied settings led them to the conclusion that individuals will often fail to anticipate any regression to the mean and at the same time fail to assign adequate weight to the sample size in their assessment of the import of evidence.
Moreover, individuals fail to take the full advantage of base rate in the process of making predictions (Quellette, Wood, 1998, p. 47). The approach adopted by Kahneman and Tversky to the heuristics and biases can further be dichotomized into two. For one, heuristics were and are still described as something that is akin to the strategies employed by various individuals deliberately in an effort to simplify judgmental problems that would pose a difficulty to the typical human mind.
The term as used fits with the metaphor of the cognitive miser as used in social cognition and which suggests that the biases which were or are documented in the tradition of heuristics and biases were produced by inattentive and lazy minds (Corneille, Monin, 2004, p. 92). Further, Kahneman and Tversky tied heuristics to natural assessments elicited by the present problem that can affect the judgment without being used strategically or deliberately. In essence, the assessment is useful in informing the judgment of likelihood of an event or situation in the absence of deliberative intent.
As a result of other things that were by then happening in the field of psychology, the idea of cognitive miser became more rooted than that of natural assessments and this is true even to today (Albarracin, Wyner, 2000, p. 31). In recent times, heuristics studies have made the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in an effort to demonstrate the judgments made by different individuals in different situations. These studies have proved that human beings use different parts of the brain in reasoning about both unfamiliar and familiar situations. This has been proved to hold as true for various kinds of reasoning problems.
A lot of research has been conducted in relation to heuristics and the field of psychology in general which have over the years helped scholars and other individuals to better conceptualize the ways and methods in which individuals or human beings reach at reasonable though non-optimal solutions when faced with complex problems. As stated in the beginning, the concept of heuristics has created many interests in the academic field and it has over the years been adopted by various academic displines including applied sciences such as medicine and computer science, law, political science, philosophy and others (Perk, Lessig, 1981, p.
67). However, it is important to note that the development of heuristics was accelerated by the works of Kahneman and Tversky when they started to build on the perspective of bounded rationality as opposed to the earlier normative rationality theory that was previously been used to explain the way in which human beings reached at problem judgments and how they obtained their solutions. It is however important to say note that the use of heuristics in making decisions, judgments and finding solutions to problems do not offer optimal ones and that such solutions and judgments may prove to be incorrect at times.
Researchers have often emphasized that a human being attains reasonable but not optima solutions from mental heuristics which may at times be misleading (Crtryn, 2001, p. 22).
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