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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,
Germany.
E-mail: sascha.topolinski@uni-koeln.de
Fritz Strack,
Department of Psychology II,
Roentgenring 10,
97070 Wuerzburg,
Germany.
E-mail: strack@psychologie.uni-wuerzburg.de
Keywords
Accessibility; Affect; Anchoring; Attribution; Availability; Feelings as information; Fluency; Heuristic processing; Heuristics; Intuition;
Judgments; Rationality; Representativeness
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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.
Abstract
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
psychology.
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
bib23
Tversky
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 (
bib4
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
(e.g.,
bib9
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.
p0030
The discussion that follows will introduce the three most
prominent heuristics.
s0015
The Availability Heuristic
p0035
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.
bib22
Tversky and Kahneman (1973) called this judgment strategy
the availability heuristic.
p0040
A variety of judgments in the social domain have been
demonstrated to be based on availability, such as self-
perception (
bib14
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
AU1
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by several factors, such as the frequency with which events are
reported in the media. For example,
bib6
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 (
bib14
Schwarz et al., 1991). Several
studies have shown that these two components can be
dissociated. In their classic demonstration,
bib14
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 (
bib15
Schwarz, 1998). For
instance, individuals use subjective ease more likely when
judging out-group members (
bib12
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.,
bib11
Reber
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
bib24
Tversky and Kahneman (1982)
has demonstrated that such base rates largely are neglected
even if the individuating information is not very diagnostic.
p0065
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(
bib5
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).
p0070
The relationship between this attributional bias and
heuristic processing was demonstrated subsequently by varying
the conduciveness of the judgmental situation (for a review, see
bib1
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.
p0075
The use of the representativeness heuristic may also result in
violations of logical principles. In one study by
bib25
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.
p0080
Other effects of the representativeness heuristic concern the
misperception of chance and the neglect of sample size
(
bib23
Tversky and Kahneman, 1974).
s0025
Anchoring and Adjustment
p0085
Anchoring and adjustmentdescribes the phenomenon that
judgments are assimilated toward a value that was initially
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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,
bib23
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
bib23
Tversky
and Kahneman (1974) for this phenomenon is an
insufcient adjustment of the nal judgment. Alternatively,
bib17
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.,
bib3
Higgins
et al., 1977).
p0095 Perhaps the most relevant social domain is that of social
comparisons (
bib8
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
(
bib7
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
bib2
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
bib13
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
(e.g.,
bib13
Schwarz and Clore, 1983)(see 25007) and nonaffective
feelings (e.g.,
bib18
Strack and Neumann, 2000). For instance,
bib18
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
(cf,
bib19
Topolinski and Reber, 2010).
p0110
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
bib13
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.,
bib13
Schwarz and Clore, 1983;
bib14
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 (
bib13
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 (
bib20
Topolinski and Strack, 2009).
p0115
Finally, beyond this instructed invalidation, other psycho-
logical moderators of the use of feelings as information exist.
As reviewed by
bib2
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).
s0040
Processing Fluency
p0120
A common underlying mechanism of many heuristic judg-
ments is processing uency being the ease and efciency of
information processing (
bib11
Reber et al., 2004). Specically,
uency can pertain to any mental operation, such as
perceptual, semantic, or motor processing (
bib11
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.,
bib21
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 (
bib10
Reber and Schwarz, 1999), the
feeling of truth (Unkelbach, 2007), or intuitions in general
(
bib20
Topolinski and Strack, 2009).
p0125
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
AU3
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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
(
bib14
Schwarz et al., 1991;
bib20
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.,
bib16
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.,
bib4
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
challenge.
See also: Decision-making; 24092; Social Comparison; Attri-
bution; Risk Taking; Social Cognition; Emotions; 24066;
Persuation; Categorisation; Stereotyping.
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4Heuristics in Social Cognition
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