Adaptive Behavior and Cognition

The Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition (Director: Gerd Gigerenzer) investigated human rationality, particularly decision making and risk behavior in an uncertain world. Founded in 1997, the research center existed until 2017, when the director transitioned to emeritus status.

Humans are forced to make countless decisions each day in a world where the future is unknown and difficult to predict. Which is the best school for my child? Should I participate in cancer screening? Where should I invest my money? To answer these, people often use simple rules of thumb, also known as heuristics. To explore and understand these heuristics, the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition explored the rationality of human reasoning.

Unlike most approaches in psychology, economics, and behavioral biology, researchers from the Center did not presume that humans and animals have unlimited time and knowledge at their disposal and act in strictly rational ways according to the laws of logic. In situations entailing uncertainty, intuition or “gut feelings” can lead to better results than would an analysis of all alternatives.

On the basis of this, researchers developed three key concepts to describe how humans make decisions in real-life situations:

  • bounded rationality,
  • ecological rationality, and
  • social rationality.

In experiments, computer simulations, and mathematical analyses, they investigated which, when, and why specific strategies lead to a good results. In order to make good decisions, people need to be able to accurately estimate the risks attached. Risks are statistical information describing the probability with which a particular event will happen.  Unfortunately, most people—including experts—have difficulties understanding statistical information. Researchers in the group therefore developed instruments that provide probabilities in easy-to-understand graphic formats. Their focus was on the areas of medicine, law, business, and politics, where decisions are far-ranging and thus especially risky.

The Harding Center for Risk Literacy emerged from the Center in 2009.

Research period: 1997–2017

Further information on Gerd Gigerenzer as Director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development is available here.


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