take-the-best-heuristic

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

heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
recognition-heuristic
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.
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The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.
take-the-best-heuristic
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.
biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.
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The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.
barnum-effect
The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

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