Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

A heuristic is a simple, fast and easy to apply rule or behavioural pattern.(1-3)  Only a limited amount of external data and little cognitive effort are needed for its execution. A heuristic can be a powerful tool if it is adapted to the particular environment. A heuristics can be unconscious or deliberate.

One stream within cognitive psychology (‘Heuristics and Biases’) identified heuristics with negligent and superficial thinking. Heuristics would lead to suboptimal decisions if compared with optimal decisions based on more elaborate data processing. Another position has contested this view and understands heuristics as ‘smart’ and valid instruments adapted to the ecology of a particular environment as well as the cognitive limitations of a subject.

In a foot note, Glöckner&Witteman address the confusion from literature about the term heuristic that has been differently used.(4) Some researchers define heuristics as shortcut strategies that rely on simple deliberate calculations such like if this condition then that response.(5) The underlying process is  a deliberate, analytical process. Others state that heuristics are based on automatic-intuitive processes. (6;7) Glöckner&Witteman strongly suggest to differentiate between both interpretations and to specify which interpretation will be used.

However, in the heuristic and bias tradition (HB) Kahneman studied the intuitive judgments that mainly arise from simplifying heuristics and not from experience and manifest skill. These heuristics are prone to systematic biases.(2) ‘The HB claim is not that intuitions that arise in heuristics are always incorrect, only that they are less trustworthy than intuitions that are rooted in specific experiences’.(2) Klein studied the intuitive judgments based on experience and genuine skill.

Denig described heuristics in a way close to practice.(8)

As to the foot note of Glöckner&Witteman we may ask whether it is correct supposing heuristics as shortcut strategies relied on deliberate processes. Perhaps they were but after time and experience they has become implicit and are automatically processed.


(1) Tversky A, Kahneman D. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science 1974;185:1124-31.

(2) Kahneman D, Klein G. Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. Am Psychol 2009 Sep;64(6):515-26.

(3) Gigerenzer G, Todd PM. Simple heuristics that makes us smart. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.

(4) Glockner A, Witteman C. Foundation for tracing intuition: models, findings, categorizations. In: Glockner A, Witteman C, editors. Foundations for tracing intuition.Hove and New York: Psychology Press; 2010. p. 1-23.

(5) Gigerenzer G. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. London: Penguin Books; 2007.

(6) Kahneman D, Frederick S. A Model of Heuristic Judgement. In: Holyoak KJ, Morrison R, editors. The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning.New York: Cambridge University Press; 2005. p. 267-93.

(7) Slovic P, Finucane M, Peters E, MacGregor DG. The Affect Heuristic. In: Gilovich T, Griffin D, Kahneman D, editors. Heuristics and biases.New York: Cambridge University Press; 2002. p. 397-420.

(8) Denig P, Haaijer-Ruskamp FM, Wesseling H, Versluis A. Towards understanding treatment preferences of hospital physicians. Soc Sci Med 1993 Apr;36(7):915-24.