The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.
Understanding the recognition heuristic
The heuristic makes inferences about a criterion not directly accessible to the decision-maker. Accessibility is reliant upon the ability to retrieve stored information from memory – provided that such information has relevance to an object (or alternative object) in question.
Indeed, for two alternative objects, Goldstein and Gigerenzer stated that:
“If one of two objects is recognized and the other is not, then infer that the recognized object has the higher value with respect to the criterion.”
The original recognition heuristic experiment
To demonstrate this heuristic, the researchers quizzed German and U.S. students on the populations of various German and U.S. cities. Students were given the names of two cities and asked to choose which city had a higher population.
Results showed that 92% of choices were based on city recognition and not on specific knowledge of population size. Interestingly, German students fared better on U.S cities while U.S. students scored better on German cities. The results were attributed to the fact that cities with larger populations were more recognizable than cities with smaller populations.
This is also an example of the less-is-more effect because student decisions were more accurate in domains where they had little knowledge.
The recognition heuristic in marketing
In marketing and consumer psychology, the recognition heuristic is strongly linked to branding. Businesses spend vast amounts of money advertising their products to increase brand awareness and ensure that their products remain top-of-mind for consumers.
The mechanisms for a consumer choosing one product over another are much the same as the original study on population size.
Consider these scenarios:
- Publicly listed companies with recognizable names are more likely to attract shareholder investment than those companies that are less well known.
- A brand of breakfast cereal with a catchy slogan and memorable mascot is likely to be purchased more often than a no-name supermarket brand with plain packaging.
Limitations to the recognition heuristic
Many researchers argue that purchasing decisions are often based on more than recognition alone. This contradicts the notion that the recognition heuristic is a non-compensatory model based on one cue even if other cues are available.
In a mechanism called “recognition plus evaluation”, the consumer may consider a range of cues such as:
- The average review rating or the number of stars.
- Perceived product desirability. For example, how much of a product is available on the shelf compared to a competitor product?
- Negative association, where an individual may recognize a product but for the wrong reasons. For example, the product may be associated with animal cruelty or the business itself has a history of subverting consumer law.
- The recognition heuristic argues that recognized objects that satisfy certain criteria have more value than unrecognized objects that do not.
- The recognition heuristic has significant implications for brand marketing and awareness. Consumers choose products from brands they are more familiar with.
- Some argue that the non-compensatory nature of the recognition heuristic is false. While recognition is an important factor in consumer choice, other cues such as the star rating of a product are assessed before a decision is made.
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