Heuristics Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

When individuals engage in decision-making or judgment it is often necessary to use heuristics to help process the information that they encounter. Heuristics have been called rules of thumb but can be also viewed as cognitive frameworks for processing information during decision-making. Heuristics can be more or less effective based on a number of factors. Examples of types of heuristic include the anchoring and adjustment heuristic and the representative heuristic. Heuristics can be applied in many areas including education and viewed from unique vantage points such as the positive psychology approach.

Keywords Affect Heuristic; Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic; Attribute Substitution; Decision-Making; Heuristics; Judgment; Moral Heuristics; Problem-Solving; Representative Heuristic


Individuals use heuristics to make decisions or come to conclusions about any number of events, people, or situations they encounter in their environment. Heuristics can be thought of as rules of thumb individuals use to make decisions across a range of circumstances (Veermans, van Joolingen, & de Jong, 2006). The rules of thumb that are heuristics are really cognitive frameworks that are developed through experience and implemented during problem-solving (Abel, 2003). Heuristics have been conceptualized as one aspect of a broader information-processing system that also entails perception, memory, and processing information in an ordered sequence (Hogarth, 1981). Additionally, the heuristic system has been posited to be one type of reasoning system within the realm of dual-process reasoning theories (De Neys, 2006).

About Heuristics

Characteristics of heuristics include:

• The possibility that their use could result in conclusions that are incorrect,

• The ability to apply them in a variety of circumstances,

• Being domain-specific or general in nature, and

• Being viewed in implicit or explicit terms (Veermans, van Joolingen, & de Jong, 2006).

In regard to the notion that using heuristics may lead to incorrect conclusions, it is also the case that using heuristics can lead to conclusions that may be correct yet inaccurate in some way (Abel, 2003; Smith, 1999). Inaccuracy resulting from the use of heuristics is often due to error that comes into play during the decision-making process.

Hogarth and Karelaia (2007) examined how effective heuristics have been and under what conditions heuristics prove to be more or less accurate. Conditions posited to affect heuristic accuracy and efficacy were the amount of information encountered and the existence of trade-offs concerning cues and attributes in information processing. Hogarth and Karelaia compared linear models of information processing with heuristic use in regard to regions of rationality. Heuristics performed more accurately when there was consonance between the nature of the heuristic and the environment in which they were used. Furthermore, decision-making using heuristics will frequently involve the assessment of the representativeness of the stimuli being evaluated and the outcomes being predicted (Kahneman & Tversky, 1996). Finally, heuristics may prove disadvantageous in decision-making when the settings in which individuals find themselves necessitate analytical and extended reasoning and not the quicker pace of heuristics (De Neys, 2006).

Types of Heuristics

Given the ubiquity of heuristics in everyday life, it stands to reason that there are a variety of heuristics in existence. Researchers continue to investigate how and why certain types of heuristics are utilized or “selected” for particular situations (Marewski & Schooler, 2011). Swinkels (2003) is just one of many researchers who has asserted that individuals use heuristics to help themselves process the social information they receive while attempting to make decisions. He reviewed several types of heuristics:

• Representative,

• Availability,

• Simulation, and

• Anchoring and adjustment heuristics.

Representative Heuristics

According to Swinkels, the representative heuristic involves using information about the more prototypical characteristics of groupings of people or things to make decisions about individual people or members of groups.

Availability Heuristics

In using the availability heuristic, individuals draw upon familiar exemplars of characteristics of groups as they process information.

Simulation Heuristics

The simulation heuristic involves the ability of individuals to create as many possible situations related to the question a hand.


The anchoring and adjustment heuristic entails using a point of reference or an "anchor" when processing information during the decision-making process. The initial anchor often undergoes an adjustment before an individual settles on a decision (Swinkles, 2003).

Quite a few researchers have examined the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. For instance, Smith (1999) stated that adults have been documented to use the anchoring and adjustment but less was known about if, and how, children use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. Smith conducted a study with students in elementary and middle school grades on the use of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic. Results indicated that even students in the youngest grades (i.e., third grade) used the anchoring and adjustment heuristic.

Further investigation of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic has yielded more intriguing findings. Morrow (2002) noted that the anchor in the anchoring and adjustment heuristic may unduly influence subsequent decisions if the information used to make the first estimate in the decision-making process is not sound, or the adjustments that are made fall short in accuracy. Epley and Gilovich (2006) highlighted the lack of appropriate adjustment when individuals use the anchoring and adjustment heuristic such that adjustments still remain in a range close to the anchor. They found that providing individuals with cautionary guidelines about anchoring effects led to more adjustments being made but only when the individuals supplied the anchor themselves.

Affect Heuristic

Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson (2000) posited that an affect heuristic is used in decision-making by individuals. The affect heuristic incorporates the positive and negative valences attributed to various representations when individuals make judgments, particularly about risks and benefits. Finucane and colleagues suggested that the affect heuristic accounts in some part for the negative association between risks and benefits during the decision-making process. Kahneman (2003) proclaimed the affect heuristic to be as seminal in the heuristics arena as the representative and availability heuristic.

Fluency, Generation

In addressing additional heuristics, Whittlesea and Leboe (2000) focused on recall and recognition tasks as they related to decision-making and their relevance to the construct of remembering. The fluency, generation, and resemblance heuristics were posited to play roles in remembering. The fluency heuristic pertains to the facility with which individuals can process information about tangible stimuli in the environment (Olds & Westerman, 2012). Generation heuristics are related to the amount of information an individual is able to generate about a stimulus encountered in the environment. The resemblance heuristic refers to how many aspects of a stimulus are concordant with an individual's expectations of the stimulus due to past encounters as opposed to the current setting that the individual engages with the stimulus. The resemblance and generation heuristics are information gathering heuristics while the fluency heuristic is referred to by the authors as a quality-of-performance, or information processing, heuristic.


Brandstätter, Gigerenzer, and Hertwig (2006) defined the priority heuristic as a framework by which individuals make decisions by prioritizing the gathered information, limiting the amount of information to review, and then making a decision given the information gathered. The priority heuristic stands in contrast to the weighting and summing process that comprises the trade-off theory of information processing. Sunstein (2003) addressed the topic of moral heuristics, or the use of rules of thumb in regard to moral and political topics, and the problems that arise when they are used without taking context into account. An example of a moral heuristic is the outrage heuristic where individuals make judgments about the punishment for a transgression based on the level of outrage the transgression evokes. Kahneman and Frederick (2002) offered the terms indignation heuristic or anger heuristic as possible synonyms for the outrage heuristic.


Discovery Learning

Heuristics have also been applied within various arenas and in diverse ways. For example, Veermans, van Joolingen, and de Jong (2006) detailed how viewing heuristics in implicit or explicit terms influences the discovery learning process. Discovery learning involves engaging students in the learning process through active and direct exploration of phenomena of interest. The use of implicit heuristics in discovery learning provides students with instructions garnered from a heuristic while explicit heuristic use entails naming the heuristic to be used and detailing the instructions yielded from the heuristic.

Research by Veermans and colleagues found students who...

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