The Heuristics Debate

The Heuristics Debate

The Heuristics Debate

The Heuristics Debate


All of us use heuristics--that is, we reach conclusions using shorthand cues without using or analyzing all of the available information. Heuristics pervade all aspects of life, from the most mundane practices to more important ones, like economic decision making and politics. People may decide how fast to drive merely by mimicking others around them or decide in which safety project to invest public resources based on the past disasters most readily called to mind. Not surprisingly, opinions vary about our tendency to use heuristics. The 'heuristics and biases' school argues that the practice often leads to outcomes that are not ideal: people act on too little information, make incorrect assumptions, and don't understand the consequences of their actions. The 'fast and frugal' school contends that while mistakes will inevitably occur, the benefits generally outweigh the costs--not only because using heuristics enables us to reach judgments given realistic constraints of time and attention, but because heuristics users often outperform those using more conventionally rational methods.

In The Heuristics Debate,Mark Kelman takes a step back from the chaos of competing academic debates to consider what we have learned--and still need to learn--about the way people actually make decisions. In doing so, Kelman uncovers a powerful tool for understanding the relationship between human reasoning and public policy. Can we figure out more optimal modes of disclosure to consumers or better rules of evidence and jury instructions if we understand more accurately how people process information? Can we figure out how best to increase compliance with law if we understand how people make decisions about whether or not to comply? Alongside a penetrating analysis of the various schools of thought on heuristics, Kelman offers a comprehensive account of how distinct conceptions of the role and nature of heuristic reasoning shape--and misshape--law and policy in America.The Heuristics Debate is a groundbreaking work that will change how we think about the relationship between human psychology, the law, and public policy.


At some high level of generality, there is considerable overlap in the way pretty much everyone interested in heuristics thinks about heuristics. At some level of generality there is widespread agreement that people are employing heuristics whenever they make a judgment or reach a decision without making use of some information that could be relevant or some computational abilities that at least some people possess.

Again, there is agreement as well that using strategies that are plainly not formal optimization strategies is, sometimes, absolutely necessary. Many of us can “know” enough about the flight of a fly ball in baseball to catch a ball hit quite far from us even though there is lots of information about where a batted ball will land that we would never use at all (e.g., information about wind, spin, the force with which the ball was hit) and computations that many who catch fly balls either do not have the faintest idea how to perform or could not possibly perform nearly quickly enough to make use of them while pursuing a fly ball (e.g., about how far a ball will go if there is a particular angle of ascent). The one-input “gaze heuristic” we apparently use to “solve” the problem appears to work just fine. According to those who believe that we employ this heuristic, someone seeking to catch a fly ball first crudely estimates whether the ball will land in front of or behind him, then runs in that direction, fixing his eye on the ball. He adjusts his running speed so that the angle of gaze—the angle between the eye and the ball—remains constant or within a small range.

At a high level of generality, too, everyone agrees that heuristics are often “functional.” Using them produces answers that meet our ends well, however these ends are . . .

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