, Volume 190, Issue 5, pp 831-850
Date: 22 Nov 2012

Fast and frugal heuristics: rationality and the limits of naturalism

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Gerd Gigerenzer and Thomas Sturm have recently proposed a modest form of what they describe as a normative, ecological and limited naturalism. The basic move in their argument is to infer that certain heuristics we tend to use should be used in the right ecological setting. To address this argument, we first consider the case of a concrete heuristic called Take the Best (TTB). There are at least two variants of the heuristic which we study by making explicit the choice functions they induce, extending these variants of TTB beyond binary choice. We argue that the naturalistic argument can be applied to only one of the two variants of the heuristic; we also argue that the argument for the extension requires paying attention to other “rational” virtues of heuristics aside from efficacy, speed, and frugality. This notwithstanding, we show that there is a way of extending the right variant of TTB to obtain a very well behaved heuristic that could be used to offer a stronger case for the naturalistic argument (in the sense that if this heuristic is used, it is also a heuristic that we should use). The second part of the article considers attempts to extending the naturalistic argument from algorithms dealing with inference to heuristics dealing with choice. Our focus is the so-called Priority Heuristic, which we extend from risk to uncertainty. In this setting, the naturalist argument seems more difficult to formulate, if it remains feasible at all. Normativity seems in this case extrinsic to the heuristic, whose main virtue seems to be its ability to describe actual patterns of choice. But it seems that a new version of the naturalistic argument used with partial success in the case of inference is unavailable to solve the normative problem of whether we should exhibit the patterns of choice that we actually display.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Horacio Arló-Costa (1956–2011). Arló-Costa passed away while he and Arthur Paul Pedersen were preparing this article for publication in the special issue of Synthese on Economics and Rationality. Consequently, issues which the authors address in this article could no longer be discussed in collaboration; points of disagreement were left as such, and delicate issues and problems remained to be adequately formulated and resolved. Pedersen deemed it appropriate to publish a version of the article close to that which had been prepared around the time of Arló-Costa’s passing, amending, elaborating, or improving upon those aspects of the article which could be comfortably addressed out of respect for Arló-Costa or which Arló-Costa and Pedersen had discussed, while leaving those aspects of the article they did not have an opportunity to discuss in their state at the time of Arló-Costa’s passing. Though therefore incomplete, the resulting article is rich with interesting and exciting ideas which call for further exploration and indeed are the subject of current research.