Toward a Formal Science of Heuristics

AbstractHeuristics are simple, effective cognitive processes that deliberately ignore parts of information relevant to decision-making. Ecological rationality, as an essential part of the Adaptive Toolbox research program on heuristics, investigates the environmental conditions under which simple heuristics would outperform complex models of decision-making, thereby providing support for the surprising less-is-more effect. In this work, we present a new research program, dubbed {formal science of heuristics} (FSH), that nicely complements the ecological rationality research, developing it into a much richer research program. Concretely, FSH sets to (i) mathematically delineate the broadest class of environmental conditions under which a heuristic is fully optimal, and (ii) formally investigate how deviations from those conditions would lead to degradation of performance, thereby allowing for a mathematically rigorous characterization of their robustness. As an instantiation of the FSH research program, we present several analytical results aiming to delineate the mildest conditions granting the optimality of a well-known heuristic: Take The Best. We conclude by discussing the implications that pursuit of FSH could have on the science of heuristics.

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