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Heuristics are strategies of simplifying judgments that allow individuals to make decisions under suboptimal circumstances. The research on heuristics had a profound and lasting impact on modern psychology, particularly on social psychology. Three classical examples are outlined in detail, the availability, the representativeness, and the anchoring heuristic. Also, heuristic judgments using feelings as information as well as processing fluency are discussed.
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Author and Co-author Contact Information
Sascha Topolinski,
Department of Psychology,
Social and Economic Cognition,
University of Cologne,
Richard-Strauß-Straße 2,
50931 Cologne,
Fritz Strack,
Department of Psychology II,
Roentgenring 10,
97070 Wuerzburg,
Accessibility; Affect; Anchoring; Attribution; Availability; Feelings as information; Fluency; Heuristic processing; Heuristics; Intuition;
Judgments; Rationality; Representativeness
ISB2 24018
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a0005 Heuristics in Social Cognition
Sascha Topolinski, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany
Fritz Strack, University of Wuerzburg, Wuerzburg, Germany
Ó2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
abspara0010 Heuristics are strategies of simplifying judgments that allow individuals to make decisions under suboptimal circumstances.
The research on heuristics had a profound and lasting impact on modern psychology, particularly on social psychology. Three
classical examples are outlined in detail, the availability, the representativeness, and the anchoring heuristic. Also, heuristic
judgments using feelings as information as well as processing uency are discussed.
p0010 Heuristics afford decisions under suboptimal conditions. In
this article, the psychological mechanisms underlying such
heuristics will be identied. After exploring their role in
simplifying judgments under uncertainty, special emphasis is
given to the availability, the representativeness, and the
anchoring heuristic and to their importance in different social
contexts. In addition, other judgmental strategies that serve the
same purpose are discussed.
p0015 Heuristicsare strategies of simplifying judgments that
allow individuals to make decisions under suboptimal
circumstances. The discovery of heuristics has had a profound
impact on social psychology (see 24095), especially in the eld
of social cognition, which studies the attempts by individuals
to make sense of others (see Mental Representation of
Persons, Psychology of). This article describes the general idea
of heuristic information processing, looks at specic heuristics,
and examines the importance of heuristics for social
s0010 Judgments under Suboptimal Conditions
p0020 Whereas traditional theories of human decision making
(see 24014) have focused on the normative aspects of valid
judgments while neglecting the context in which they occur, the
heuristicsapproach has directed its attention to the psycho-
logical processes that enable individuals to make judgments and
decisions under situational, motivational, and cognitive
conditions that are less than optimal, such as under distraction
or time pressure. Because decisions typically are made in a state
of uncertainty, it has proven fruitful to identify the strategies
that individuals actually use to arrive at solutions that do not
represent the best possible outcome but simply meet specic
criteria. The study of these simplifying rules of thumb, called
judgmental heuristics, has been spearheaded chieyby
and Kahneman (1974). Because the concept of heuristics is
associated closely with these authors, the application of this
term is often limited to the specic mechanisms they have
identied. However, the underlying logic of heuristic processing
also applies to other strategies that serve the same purpose,
that of simplifying human judgments and making them
feasible under suboptimal conditions (
Kahneman, 2003).
p0025 Because generally it is not possible to identify the use of
a heuristic procedure from the outcome of a judgment,
researchers have had to create specic conditions under which
heuristics lead to errors. As a result, heuristics have often been
associated with the supposed irrationality of human reasoning
Nisbett and Ross, 1980). However, just as visual illusions
do not testify to the deciency of human perception, the
errors produced by judgmental heuristics are not proof of
the inadequacy of human judgment in general; instead, they
point to mechanisms that allow individuals to make
acceptable decisions under natural constraints. These
mechanisms, however, have no common psychological
characteristics that would make them distinct from systematic
processing as their status of a heuristic depends solely on the
existence of a more systematic way of processing. That
means, heuristic processing could be characterized as
systematicif there was a way of further simplifying the
heuristic procedure. Still, heuristics are important in shedding
light on new ways of simplifying judgments and thereby
revealing psychological procedures that have been unknown.
The discussion that follows will introduce the three most
prominent heuristics.
The Availability Heuristic
In assessing the frequency or probability of an event (or the co-
occurrence of several events), individuals often employ
a strategy that is based on the ease with which bits of infor-
mation can be retrieved or generated from memory. Employers
wishing to gauge the rate of unemployment in their commu-
nity may go to the trouble of obtaining the relevant informa-
tion from ofcial sources. But if they are not motivated or able
to do that, they can try to think of unemployed friends or
acquaintances. The more easily they are able to do so, the
higher will be their estimate of the rate of unemployment.
Tversky and Kahneman (1973) called this judgment strategy
the availability heuristic.
A variety of judgments in the social domain have been
demonstrated to be based on availability, such as self-
perception (
Schwarz et al., 1991). One well-researched
example is judgments of risks, the assessment of which
depends on the frequency with which a type of event occurs.
For instance, riding a motor bicycle is risky to the extent that
accidents occur frequently. However, the actual frequency of an
event and the ease with which it comes to mind may be biased
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by several factors, such as the frequency with which events are
reported in the media. For example,
Lichtenstein et al. (1978)
found that causes of death frequently reported in the press
were greatly overestimated in terms of their frequency.
p0045 Importantly, availabilityhas two psychological compo-
nents that usually are confounded: the content that comes to
mind and the ease (or effort) experienced while retrieving the
information from memory (
Schwarz et al., 1991). Several
studies have shown that these two components can be
dissociated. In their classic demonstration,
Schwarz et al.
(1991) asked participants to recall either six (which feels
easy) or 12 (which feels hard) biographical examples in
which they had shown assertive behaviors. Then, participants
were asked to rate their own assertiveness. If participants
would base their judgment on the retrieved content as
informational evidence, they would rate themselves as more
assertive in the 12 than in the six examples condition (There
are a lot of examples of assertive behaviors in my life, so I
must be an assertive person.). In contrast, if they would base
their judgment on the experienced ease with which they had
retrieved memory evidence, they would rate themselves as
more assertive in the six than in the 12 examples conditions
(It was easy to recall assertive episodes from my life, so I
must be an assertive person.). The result was that
participants based their judgments on the experienced ease of
information retrieval, not on the number of retrieved examples.
p0050 Beyond this basic nding, which maps the default use of the
availability heuristic, several further studies have identied
factors that moderate which of the two components, experience
or content of retrieval, is used, with subjective ease more likely
used under suboptimal judgmental conditions such as low
motivation or low cognitive capacity (
Schwarz, 1998). For
instance, individuals use subjective ease more likely when
judging out-group members (
Rothman and Hardin, 1997), or
under positive mood (Ruder and Bless, 2003). Thus, the
availability heuristic, such as many other heuristics
(see below, for Processing Fluency), is no xed link, but
rather a exible judgmental tool.
p0055 Apart from these examples of judgments and affective
reactions on the basis of the perceived ease of cognitive oper-
ations, the availability principlein its general form, that is, the
nding that increased accessibility of any cognitive represen-
tation (see Priming, Cognitive Psychology of) inuences judg-
ment and cognitive performance, has stimulated a host of
research in social psychology, such as categorization of persons,
causal attribution (see Attributional Processes: Psychological),
or the constancy of opinions after they have been discredited.
Finally, the more general notion processing uency (e.g.,
et al., 2004) can be derived from the availability principle
and has become a powerful conceptual tool to explain the
causal undercurrents of a variety of judgments under
uncertainty (see below).
s0020 The Representativeness Heuristic
p0060 The representativeness heuristic refers to peoples tendency to
simplify categorical judgments by relying solely or excessively
on similarity. For example, a person who wants to determine
the profession of another person may use the target persons
similarity to the typical member of this profession. Conse-
quently, a student might decide that a fellow student at the next
table in a university cafeteria is a business administration major
he or she displays the characteristics of a typical MBA student,
such as reading the business section of the paper and talking
about the stock exchange. Although this strategy has a logical
basis, it tends to neglect other types of relevant information,
such as base rates. For example, this university may have many
more students of law than of business administration. Infor-
mation about such a frequency distribution should affect the
judgment in the same way as information about the target
person. However, research by
Tversky and Kahneman (1982)
has demonstrated that such base rates largely are neglected
even if the individuating information is not very diagnostic.
This neglect of base rates is strikingly similar to ndings
from attribution research. A number of studies discovered that
when people identify the causes of an observed behavior, they
attribute it to characteristics of the person and neglect situa-
tional inuences. This response tendency implies that judges
underestimate consensus information(
Kelley, 1967) that
reects the power of situations. Consensus information
describes how other people behave under the same
circumstances and serves as a basic determinant of causal
attributions (see Attributional Processes: Psychological).
Specically, if everybody shows the same behavior in a given
context, there is little reason to attribute an action to the
unique characteristics of the actor. The tendency to neglect
such base rate information in social judgments and to give it
less weight than it should have under normative
considerations can be understood as a manifestation of the
representativeness heuristic because it consists of drawing
inferences on the basis of similarity (a person who behaves
aggressively is aggressive) at the expense of base rate
information (see 25022).
The relationship between this attributional bias and
heuristic processing was demonstrated subsequently by varying
the conduciveness of the judgmental situation (for a review, see
Gilbert and Malone, 1995). Researchers demonstrated that the
neglect of situational inuences depended on judgescognitive
resources, such that this bias was more likely to occur when
people were distracted.
The use of the representativeness heuristic may also result in
violations of logical principles. In one study by
Tversky and
Kahneman (1983), judges had to assess the probability of the
joint occurrence of two characteristics of a target (a liberated
woman). One feature was highly representative (She is
a feminist), while the other was not (She is a bank teller).
In line with the representativeness heuristic, judges
considered it less likely that the target person was a bank
teller than that she was a feminist bank teller, which is, of
course, logically impossible.
Other effects of the representativeness heuristic concern the
misperception of chance and the neglect of sample size
Tversky and Kahneman, 1974).
Anchoring and Adjustment
Anchoring and adjustmentdescribes the phenomenon that
judgments are assimilated toward a value that was initially
2Heuristics in Social Cognition
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considered. For example, a person who has to estimate the
proportion of African nations in the United Nations may arrive
at a higher percentage if he or she has been exposed previously
to a high rather than a low standard of comparison. While such
an inuence would be hardly surprising if this anchoris
offered as a piece of information that is relevant to the judg-
ment in question,
Tversky and Kahneman (1974) were able to
show that the resulting assimilation effect occurred even if
relevance was ruled out by presenting the anchor as the
outcome of a probabilistic process.
p0090 The psychological process that was suggested by
and Kahneman (1974) for this phenomenon is an
insufcient adjustment of the nal judgment. Alternatively,
Strack and Mussweiler (1997) have proposed a mechanism
that is related to the availability heuristic, the so-called selec-
tive accessibility model. Here the anchoring effect involves two
stages. In the rst stage, judges engage in biased hypothesis
testing when they consider the anchor as a possible value of the
target. In this process, semantic information consistent with the
anchor is activated. As a consequence of this selective activa-
tion, consistent information will be more accessible in a second
stage when information for the nal judgment will be retrieved.
In this perspective, the anchoring effect is not the result of
a numeric inuence or a mere effect of insufcient adjustment
but caused by a mechanism of semantic priming that has been
demonstrated in many studies in social cognition (e.g.,
et al., 1977).
p0095 Perhaps the most relevant social domain is that of social
comparisons (
Mussweiler, 2003;see 24026). Here, work on the
anchoring heuristic suggests a mechanism that explains
why and under what conditions comparing ourselves to
another person will make us appear similar to that person
Mussweiler and Strack, 2000).
s0030 Other Heuristics in Social Psychology: Feelings
and Fluency
p0100 In the previous sections, three basic judgmental strategies were
introduced that were identied by Kahneman and Tversky as
devices employed to form sufciently accurate judgments
under adverse conditions and with little cognitive effort,
although under certain circumstances, these strategies can lead
to systematic distortions. The idea of heuristic information
processing has been expanded subsequently to other heuristic
cues, with lasting inuence on theory formation in broad areas
of social psychology.
s0035 Feelings as Information
p0105 A prominent example is the use of feelings as information (for a
recent review, see
Greifeneder et al., 2011). Specically, it has
been argued that under suboptimal circumstances,
individuals use their subjective experiences to judge some
other criterion or dimension. The most prominent example
surely is the classical study by
Schwarz and Clore (1983) who
showed that judgments of overall life satisfaction are based
on current transient feelings, such as good or bad moods due
to sunny or rainy weather which are irrelevant for general
life satisfaction from a normative perspective. The impact of
feelings on judgments has been demonstrated for both affective
Schwarz and Clore, 1983)(see 25007) and nonaffective
feelings (e.g.,
Strack and Neumann, 2000). For instance,
Strack and Neumann (2000) found that furrowing the brow,
which evokes the feeling of mental effort, decreases the
likelihood that individuals judge some target person as being
familiar. Here, the nonaffective feeling of mental effort
was used as a heuristic to guide familiarity judgments
Topolinski and Reber, 2010).
Moreover, a next phase of psychological research does not
only show that judgments can be based on (irrelevant) feelings
in general but also identies the boundary conditions and
moderators of the use of feelings of information (as already
addressed in
Schwarz and Clore, 1983). Specically, calling the
informational value of current affect into question using
a reattribution paradigm for instance, by telling participants
that their current feelings are caused by an external source
substantially reduces or even neutralizes the judgmental
impact of feelings because they are reattributed to that external
transient source and thus discounted from the judgment at
hand (e.g.,
Schwarz and Clore, 1983;
Schwarz et al., 1991). This
not only applies to judgments for which the affective cue is
irrelevant and thus only a judgmental bias, such as in the
studies on mood and life satisfaction (
Schwarz and Clore,
1983), but also for judgments for which current affect is
a reliable cue to the judgmental criterion. For instance, while
current affect the gut feeling is indeed a reliable predictor
in intuitions on coherence and hidden structure, reattribution
procedures decrease intuitive accuracy and thus sabotage
intuition (
Topolinski and Strack, 2009).
Finally, beyond this instructed invalidation, other psycho-
logical moderators of the use of feelings as information exist.
As reviewed by
Greifeneder et al. (2011), feelings are more
likely to be used as judgmental cues when they are salient,
representative, and relevant for the judgmental criterion;
when the judgment itself is susceptible for affective
information; and when level of processing is low (e.g., under
low motivation).
Processing Fluency
A common underlying mechanism of many heuristic judg-
ments is processing uency being the ease and efciency of
information processing (
Reber et al., 2004). Specically,
uency can pertain to any mental operation, such as
perceptual, semantic, or motor processing (
Reber et al.,
2004). As already discussed, the availability heuristic is based
on the uency of memory retrieval. Relatively high uency
triggers a positive experience (e.g.,
Topolinski et al., 2009),
which has been shown to be used as an experiential cue in
many heuristic judgments. For instance, uency drives
spontaneous preference (
Reber and Schwarz, 1999), the
feeling of truth (Unkelbach, 2007), or intuitions in general
Topolinski and Strack, 2009).
Interestingly, several works have shown that the judgmental
use of uency is exible in the way that uency-triggered
experiences can be relabeled, reattributed, and discounted.
For instance, Unkelbach (2007) has shown that although high
uency is generally used as a cue signaling the truth of a state-
ment, only a brief period of relearning this uencytruth link
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prompts individuals to use high uency as a cue to incorrect-
ness. Also, when the informational value of uency as a judg-
mental cue is discredited such as in the reattribution
paradigms already mentioned individuals can again exibly
discount their uency experiences from their judgments
Schwarz et al., 1991;
Topolinski and Strack, 2009).
p0130 Finally, the idea of heuristics has become effective in
a second line of research in social psychology. The study of
persuasive communication (see 24009), in particular, has
proted from the distinction between heuristic and systematic
processing (Chaiken and Trope, 1999). In this domain, the
reliance on peripheral cues (such as the expertise of the
communicator or the length of the message) instead of on
central features (i.e., the strength of the arguments) was shown
to occur under suboptimal conditions. Furthermore, the
distinction between heuristic and systematic processing has
eventually stimulated the development of dual-process models
of the human mind (e.g.,
Strack and Deutsch, 2004), which
map the twofold underlying representational modes of
human judgment and behavior.
s0045 Conclusion and Future Directions
p0135 Over the years, the concept of heuristics has generated many
insights into the cognitive dynamics of social behavior. At the
same time, however, the idea of heuristic processing has gone
far beyond the three mechanisms described by Kahneman and
Tversky. In a more general perspective, a universal psycholog-
ical principle has emerged that sheds light on the exibility of
human information processing under divergent epistemic
goals (e.g.,
Kahneman, 2003). However, the work of nding
the laws of this exibility and integrating it into
psychological theorizing, as well as isolating the undercurrent
causal mechanisms of heuristic judgments, is still an ongoing
See also: Decision-making; 24092; Social Comparison; Attri-
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Persuation; Categorisation; Stereotyping.
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... This cueing may be due to cognitive biases that preference information easily retrieved from memory. 63 Such biases are typically targeted through marketing and behavioral economics interventions such as nudges, which aim to influence choice by arranging the environment to promote certain behaviors while not taking away the individual's ability to make an alternate choice. 64 Our study suggests these kinds of visual cues may be useful, particularly when associated with terms students' value. ...
Objective: To understand the rewards university students associate with two key decisions shaping food choices. Participants: Thirty-eight university students. Methods: In this exploratory research, we conducted focus groups to identify the rewards students associated with choosing to eat at the campus dining hall and their specific food choices within that venue. We also obtained feedback on reward nomenclatures identified via a content analysis of health and business literature. Results: Students primarily chose the dining hall due to its convenience, foods offered, and the social aspects of the venue. Rewards associated with food choice included freshness, customization, variety, local foods, healthy foods, convenience, and portion size. Nomenclatures were relevant and meaningful. Conclusions: These students associate food choice decisions with rewards. Universities should consider whether dining halls and menu items link healthy foods to the rewards prioritized by students. Reward nomenclatures may be useful for researchers investigating the drivers of food choice.
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The literature on insight lists four main characteristics of this experience: (a) suddenness (the experience is surprising and immediate), ease (the solution is processed without difficulty), positive affect (insights are gratifying), and the feeling of being right (after an insight, problem solvers judge the solution as being true and have confidence in this judgment). Although this phenomenology is well known, no theory has explained why insight feels the way it does. We propose a fluency account of insight: Positive affect and perceived truth and confidence in one's own judgment are triggered by the sudden appearance of the solution for a problem and the concomitant surprising fluency gain in processing. We relate earlier evidence on insight concerning the impact of sudden fluency variations on positive affect and perceived truth and confidence.
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Two studies are reported that investigate whether facial expressions may influence judgments of fame. In the current research, the authors tested the hypothesis of whether feelings of mental effort influence judgments of fame. To test this hypothesis, participants were required to contract the corrugator muscle while judging the fame of persons depicted in a photo. In Experiment 1, participants who succeeded in maintaining the contraction during the entire task evaluated the targets to be less famous than did judges who did not succeed or were not required to engage in any facial contraction. In the second experiment, participants’ success at their muscle contraction was monitored by electromyograph (EMG) feedback and a control group had to activate a different (frontalis) facial muscle. The fame effect was replicated under those conditions. The present findings suggest that facial expressions may modify nonemotional feelings and the judgments that are based on them.
Many decisions are based on beliefs concerning the likelihood of uncertain events such as the outcome of an election, the guilt of a defendant, or the future value of the dollar. Occasionally, beliefs concerning uncertain events are expressed in numerical form as odds or subjective probabilities. In general, the heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors. The subjective assessment of probability resembles the subjective assessment of physical quantities such as distance or size. These judgments are all based on data of limited validity, which are processed according to heuristic rules. However, the reliance on this rule leads to systematic errors in the estimation of distance. This chapter describes three heuristics that are employed in making judgments under uncertainty. The first is representativeness, which is usually employed when people are asked to judge the probability that an object or event belongs to a class or event. The second is the availability of instances or scenarios, which is often employed when people are asked to assess the frequency of a class or the plausibility of a particular development, and the third is adjustment from an anchor, which is usually employed in numerical prediction when a relevant value is available.
The present study examined the immediate and delayed effects of unobtrusive exposure to personality trait terms (e.g., "reckless," "persistent") on subjects' subsequent judgments and recollection of information about another person. Before reading a description of a stimulus person, subjects were unobtrusively exposed to either positive or negative trait terms that either could or could not be used to characterize this person. When the trait terms were applicable to the description of the stimulus person, subjects' characterizations and evaluations of the person reflected the denotative and evaluative aspects of the trait categories activated by the prior exposure to these terms. However, the absence of any effects for nonapplicable trait terms suggested that exposure to trait terms with positive or negative associations was not in itself sufficient to determine attributions and evaluations. Prior verbal exposure had little effect on reproduction of the descriptions. Moreover, no reliable difference in either evaluation or reproduction was found between subjects who overtly characterized the stimulus person and those who did not. Exposure to applicable trait terms had a greater delayed than immediate effect on subjects' evaluations of the stimulus person, suggesting that subjects may have discounted their categorizations of the stimulus person when making their immediate evaluations. The implications of individual and situational variation in the accessibility of different categories for judgments of self and others are considered.
Three experiments demonstrate that chronic applicability regulates the use of two types of information associated with the availability heuristic. In Experiment 1, participants used subjective experience of ease of retrieving behavioral instances when judging out-groups but used the number of behaviors retrieved when judging in-groups. In Experiment 2, manipulating the diagnosticity of experience of ease affected out-group but not in-group judgment. When experience of ease was diagnostic, results replicated Experiment 1; however, when experience of ease was nondiagnostic, the number of behaviors recalled was used in both in-group and out-group judgment. In Experiment 3, participants used the experience of ease to judge close friends but the number of behaviors retrieved to judge casual acquaintances. Results are consistent with the hypothesis that chronic patterns of information use and immediate situational cues define the applicability of accessible information to the judgment at hand.
The concept of representativeness and the conditions in which it can be used to explain intuitive predictions and probability judgments are discussed. Four cases of representativeness are distinguished that refer to the relations between a value and a variable; an instance and a category; a sample and a population; an effect and a cause. The principles of representativeness differ significantly from the laws of probability. In particular, specificity can increase the representativeness of an event, even though it always reduces its probability. Several studies of judgment are reported in which naive and sophisticated respondents judge a conjunction to be more probable than one of its components. Violations of the conjunction rule. P(A&B) < P(B), are observed in both between-subjects and within-subjects comparisons, with both fictitious and real-world events. The theoretical and practical implications of the conjunction fallacy are explored. (Author)
This study shows that high conceptual fluency induced by hidden semantic coherence automatically triggers a specific pattern of facial expressions. In the present study, word triads that either had or had not a common remote associate were read by individuals while automatic facial responses were recorded. Although participants were ignorant about the underlying semantic structure, participants’ faces showed an activation of the smiling muscle zygomaticus major (indicating increased positive affect), a relaxation of the frowning muscle corrugator supercilii (indicating decreased negative affect and mental effort), and a relaxation of the forehead muscle frontalis (indicating increased familiarity) after reading coherent compared to incoherent word triads. Implications for intuitive judgements of semantic coherence are discussed.
Perhaps the simplest and the most basic qualitative law of probability is the conjunction rule: The probability of a conjunction, P(A&B), cannot exceed the probabilities of its constituents, P(A) and P(B), because the extension (or the possibility set) of the conjunction is included in the extension of its constituents. Judgments under uncertainty, however, are often mediated by intuitive heuristics that are not bound by the conjunction rule. A conjunction can be more representative that one of its constituents, and instances of a specific category can be easier to imagine or to retrieve than instances of a more inclusive category. The representativeness and availability heuristics therefore can make a conjunction appear more probable than one of its constituents. This phenomenon is demonstrated in a variety of contexts, including estimation of word frequency, personality judgment, medical prognosis, decision under risk, suspicion of criminal acts, and political forecasting. Systematic violations of the conjunction rule are observed in judgments of lay people and of experts in both between- and within-Ss comparisons. Alternative interpretations of the conjunction fallacy are discussed, and attempts to combat it are explored. (48 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)