Critiques of the heuristics and biases tradition

by lukeprog 2 min read18th Mar 201332 comments


The chapter on judgment under uncertainty in the (excellent) new Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology has a handy little section on recent critiques of the "heuristics and biases" tradition. It also discusses problems with the somewhat-competing "fast and frugal heuristics" school of thought, but for now let me just quote the section on heuristics and biases (pp. 608-609):

The heuristics and biases program has been highly influential; however, some have argued that in recent years the influence, at least in psychology, has waned (McKenzie, 2005). This waning has been due in part to pointed critiques of the approach (e.g., Gigerenzer, 1996). This critique comprises two main arguments: (1) that by focusing mainly on coherence standards [e.g. their rationality given the subject's other beliefs, as contrasted with correspondence standards having to do with the real-world accuracy of a subject's beliefs] the approach ignores the role played by the environment or the context in which a judgment is made; and (2) that the explanations of phenomena via one-word labels such as availability, anchoring, and representativeness are vague, insufficient, and say nothing about the processes underlying judgment (see Kahneman, 2003; Kahneman & Tversky, 1996 for responses to this critique).

The accuracy of some of the heuristics proposed by Tversky and Kahneman can be compared to correspondence criteria (availability and anchoring). Thus, arguing that the tradition only uses the “narrow norms” (Gigerenzer, 1996) of coherence criteria is not strictly accurate (cf. Dunwoody, 2009). Nonetheless, responses in famous examples like the Linda problem can be reinterpreted as sensible rather than erroneous if one uses conversational or pragmatic norms rather than those derived from probability theory (Hilton, 1995). For example, Hertwig, Benz and Krauss (2008) asked participants which of the following two statements is more probable:

[X] The percentage of adolescent smokers in Germany decreases at least 15% from current levels by September 1, 2003.

[X&Y] The tobacco tax in Germany is increased by 5 cents per cigarette and the percentage of adolescent smokers in Germany decreases at least 15% from current levels by September 1, 2003.

According to the conjunction rule, [X&Y cannot be more probable than X] and yet the majority of participants ranked the statements in that order. However, when subsequently asked to rank order four statements in order of how well each one described their understanding of X&Y, there was an overwhelming tendency to rank statements like “X and therefore Y” or “X and X is the cause for Y” higher than the simple conjunction “X and Y.” Moreover, the minority of participants who did not commit the conjunction fallacy in the first judgment showed internal coherence by ranking “X and Y” as best describing their understanding in the second judgment.These results suggest that people adopt a causal understanding of the statements, in essence ranking the probability of X, given Y as more probable than X occurring alone. If so, then arguably the conjunction “error” is no longer incorrect. (See Moro, 2009 for extensive discussion of the reasons underlying the conjunction fallacy, including why “misunderstanding” cannot explain all instances of the fallacy.)

The “vagueness” argument can be illustrated by considering two related phenomena: the gambler’s fallacy and the hot-hand (Gigerenzer & Brighton, 2009). The gambler’s fallacy is the tendency for people to predict the opposite outcome after a run of the same outcome (e.g., predicting heads after a run of tails when flipping a fair coin); the hot-hand, in contrast, is the tendency to predict a run will continue (e.g., a player making a shot in basketball after a succession of baskets; Gilovich, Vallone, & Tversky, 1985). Ayton and Fischer (2004) pointed out that although these two behaviors are opposite - ending or continuing runs - they have both been explained via the label “representativeness.” In both cases a faulty concept of randomness leads people to expect short sections of a sequence to be “representative” of their generating process. In the case of the coin, people believe (erroneously) that long runs should not occur, so the opposite outcome is predicted; for the player, the presence of long runs rules out a random process so a continuation is predicted (Gilovich et al., 1985). The “representativeness” explanation is therefore incomplete without specifying a priori which of the opposing prior expectations will result. More important, representativeness alone does not explain why people have the misconception that random sequences should exhibit local representativeness when in reality they do not (Ayton & Fischer, 2004).


My thanks to MIRI intern Stephen Barnes for transcribing this text.