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Behav Processes. 2005 May 31;69(2):97-124.

Simple heuristics and rules of thumb: where psychologists and behavioural biologists might meet.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin, Germany.


The Centre for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition (ABC) has hypothesised that much human decision-making can be described by simple algorithmic process models (heuristics). This paper explains this approach and relates it to research in biology on rules of thumb, which we also review. As an example of a simple heuristic, consider the lexicographic strategy of Take The Best for choosing between two alternatives: cues are searched in turn until one discriminates, then search stops and all other cues are ignored. Heuristics consist of building blocks, and building blocks exploit evolved or learned abilities such as recognition memory; it is the complexity of these abilities that allows the heuristics to be simple. Simple heuristics have an advantage in making decisions fast and with little information, and in avoiding overfitting. Furthermore, humans are observed to use simple heuristics. Simulations show that the statistical structures of different environments affect which heuristics perform better, a relationship referred to as ecological rationality. We contrast ecological rationality with the stronger claim of adaptation. Rules of thumb from biology provide clearer examples of adaptation because animals can be studied in the environments in which they evolved. The range of examples is also much more diverse. To investigate them, biologists have sometimes used similar simulation techniques to ABC, but many examples depend on empirically driven approaches. ABC's theoretical framework can be useful in connecting some of these examples, particularly the scattered literature on how information from different cues is integrated. Optimality modelling is usually used to explain less detailed aspects of behaviour but might more often be redirected to investigate rules of thumb.

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