Heuristic decision making

Annu Rev Psychol. 2011:62:451-82. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-120709-145346.


As reflected in the amount of controversy, few areas in psychology have undergone such dramatic conceptual changes in the past decade as the emerging science of heuristics. Heuristics are efficient cognitive processes, conscious or unconscious, that ignore part of the information. Because using heuristics saves effort, the classical view has been that heuristic decisions imply greater errors than do "rational" decisions as defined by logic or statistical models. However, for many decisions, the assumptions of rational models are not met, and it is an empirical rather than an a priori issue how well cognitive heuristics function in an uncertain world. To answer both the descriptive question ("Which heuristics do people use in which situations?") and the prescriptive question ("When should people rely on a given heuristic rather than a complex strategy to make better judgments?"), formal models are indispensable. We review research that tests formal models of heuristic inference, including in business organizations, health care, and legal institutions. This research indicates that (a) individuals and organizations often rely on simple heuristics in an adaptive way, and (b) ignoring part of the information can lead to more accurate judgments than weighting and adding all information, for instance for low predictability and small samples. The big future challenge is to develop a systematic theory of the building blocks of heuristics as well as the core capacities and environmental structures these exploit.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Problem Solving*
  • Social Perception