Simple Heuristics

Over the course of evolution, humans have developed an adaptive mental toolbox packed with simple but accurate tools for making decisions under uncertainty. Our research group focuses on simple heuristics—a class of cognitive strategies that use little information and just a few easy information-processing steps. Thanks to their ecological rationality, these simple heuristics enable good decisions. A heuristic is ecologically rational when it capitalizes on statistical associations in the environment, or on relationships between the environment and psychological phenomena (e.g., recognition, forgetting, emotions), to help people make good decisions with little effort.

Selection of Cognitive Strategies From the Adaptive Toolbox

Like any good mechanic, the human mind can draw on more than one cognitive tool to deal with uncertainty. And like any tool, cognitive tools work well in some situations but not in others. How do people decide which cognitive strategy to apply in a specific context? Our findings suggest that strategy selection is influenced by the strength of the affective response to the decision problem. People are more likely to apply a strategy that ignores probability information in problems with affect-rich outcomes (e.g., adverse medical side effects) than in problems with relatively affect-poor outcomes (e.g., monetary losses).

Ecologically Rational Decision Making

What are the relevant statistical properties of the environment, how do they develop, and how can simple heuristics exploit them? One example is the relationship between risk and reward: the larger a potential reward, the lower the chances of obtaining it. Our studies have shown that people rely on their knowledge of the risk–reward relationship to infer the probability that choice options will entail a reward.

Building Bridges Between Theoretical Frameworks

Our research group also seeks to integrate the simple heuristics framework with other modeling frameworks from the cognitive and behavioral sciences (e.g., prospect theory, ACT-R, drift-diffusion models). One major benefit of theory integration is that it demonstrates how different frameworks offer alternative but complementary routes to studying the heuristic principles of decision making.


  • Fechner, H. B., Schooler, L. J., & Pachur, T. (2018). Cognitive costs of decision-making strategies: A resource demand decomposition with a cognitive architecture. Cognition170, 102–122.
  • Pachur, T., Suter, R. S., & Hertwig, R. (2017). How the twain can meet: Prospect theory and models of heuristics in risky choice. Cognitive Psychology, 93, 44–73.
  • Pleskac, T. J., & Hertwig, R. (2014). Ecologically rational choice and the structure of the environment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143, 2000–2019.
  • Spiliopoulos, L., & Hertwig, R. (in press). A map of ecologically rational heuristics for uncertain strategic worlds. Psychological Review.
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