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. 

Connected Business Concepts

Barbell Strategy

A Barbell strategy consists of making sure that 90% of your capital is safe, and using the remaining 10%, or on risky investments. Applied to business strategy, this means having a binary approach. On the one hand, extremely conservative. On the other, extremely aggressive, thus creating a potent mix.

Technological Modeling

Technological modeling is a discipline to provide the basis for companies to sustain innovation, thus developing incremental products. While also looking at breakthrough innovative products that can pave the way for long-term success. In a sort of Barbell Strategy, technological modeling suggests having a two-sided approach, on the one hand, to keep sustaining continuous innovation as a core part of the business model. On the other hand, it places bets on future developments that have the potential to break through and take a leap forward.


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.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


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.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

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