Take-The-Best Heuristic In A Nutshell

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Understanding the take-the-best heuristic

It was discovered by psychologists Gerd Gigerenzer and Daniel Goldstein as part of their research on human decision making. They found that the heuristic, which sometimes ignores large amounts of information, could lead to superior performance in many real-world scenarios.

In a 2013 study, researchers found that experienced airport customs staff used the heuristic to select travelers for body searches. To aid in their decision, the officers used attributes such as nationality, amount of luggage, and airport of origin.

The effect can also be seen during elections, where citizens choose a candidate based on whether they satisfy one attribute such as a foreign or economic policy.

The TTB decision-making process

Imagine that someone has been asked to determine the larger of two American cities.

  1. The decision-maker begins by considering the attributes (cues) of American cities. In this example, attributes may be the presence of an airport, freeway system, or the total square mileage of the urban area. Whatever the example, however, attributes must be binary (“yes” or “no”) in nature.
  2. The decision-maker then orders the attributes based on their ability to predict the criterion being judged – or which of the two cities is larger. Attributes are ranked according to cue validity, or the probability that a criterion falls in a particular category given a particular cue. In other words, is the cue of a freeway system likely to successfully predict the larger of the two cities?
  3. When comparing attributes, the individual assigns a value of 1 (yes) or 0 (no) depending on whether the attribute is present in each city. Both cities may possess the first cue, an airport, giving them a cue value of 1. However, this means that the presence of an airport alone does not discriminate between the two cities. Put differently, airports are not a good predictor of city size.
  4. The individual then moves to the cue with the next highest validity, which they determine is the presence of a freeway system. They find that City A does have a freeway, giving it a cue value of 1. City B does not, giving it a cue value of 0. At this point, the decision-maker concludes that City A is larger because the freeway attribute has a high discriminatory value. This means that the attribute has a higher likelihood of allowing the decision-maker to successfully chose between the two alternatives. 

Limitations to the take-the-best heuristic

The TTB heuristic is a so-called “fast-and-frugal” strategy that reduces cognitive load.

However, it is not immune to overthinking. The strategy is vulnerable to decision-makers who continue past the stopping point, defined as the point where a cue with a high discriminatory value is found. By considering more information than is required, cognitive load increases and then impedes decision-making ability.

Furthermore, individuals may not be able to rank attributes based on their predictive ability. This can result in attribute comparisons that have no bearing on the successful selection of a criterion.

Key takeaways

  • The take-the-best heuristic is a “fast-and-frugal” decision-making strategy that helps individuals choose between two or more alternatives.
  • The take-the-best heuristic is based on research that suggests that decisions leading to superior performance can be made with large amounts of information.
  • While the take-the-best heuristic reduces cognitive load, practitioners who ignore the stopping point must necessarily consider more information to decide. In some cases, this can increase cognitive load. 

Related Case Studies

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