Get fast and frugal!


Cognitive psychologists refer to the application of ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics when describing typical decision making processes. The word ‘heuristic’ ( derived from the Greek meaning to discover) is used to describe a process whereby decision-making ‘rules’ acquired through learning and experience are applied in order to make effective decisions. The ‘fast and frugal’ part refers to how much of our cognitive resources we are prepared, or able, to commit when making these decisions.


In many everyday situations, we aim to be as ‘fast and frugal’ as possible, taking the least amount of time and applying the minimum amount of mental effort. This is fine for simple tasks, for example, choosing between tea and orange juice. However, there are many tasks where quick decisions may have to be made but the decision-making environment is much more complex and uncertain. (You may feel you’ve encountered situations just like that when sitting certain types of examinations – a topic we’ll return to later.) The question is; how do we adapt to such environments?


Take the example of a doctor in an emergency room.  In the event of a patient presenting with acute chest pains, the doctor needs to make a speedy diagnosis to determine whether the patient is at imminent risk of a heart attack or whether there is time to undertake tests to ‘make sure’. In this situation, the symptoms present the clues. Based upon knowledge, experience and intuition, the doctor matches those symptoms to potential causation (severe chest pains are unlikely to be the result of a broken leg, for example). From there, a diagnosis is reached which then informs the course of action.


In other words, the doctor searches for and applies the heuristic template with the best match to the problem as defined by the patient’s symptoms. In some cases, the doctor may be highly confident of the diagnosis, in other cases, less so. The point is that there is never likely to be absolute certainty meaning that, whatever choice we make in pressured, critical environments, we nearly always have a potentially anxious wait to see how events play out.


We can learn much from the model of heuristic learning. First, we can recognise that practice makes (close to) perfect. As the South African golfer Gary Player once observed, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”. Building knowledge and experience through regularly practicing specific decision tasks which require specific skills pays rich dividends.


We should be systematic in the way we build this knowledge. If we think of this is terms of Oxbridge admissions tests, for example, we might start out by trying to develop the skills associated with identifying  ‘patterns’ or key information  contained within particular types of questions. Once we become proficient at this, we will find that we are able to rapidly filter out irrelevant information. Importantly, we will also learn not to infer what isn’t there. Practice these skills and you will find that you might become quite lucky as well.


The field of fast and frugal heuristics may also be of interest to students who are considering applying for PBS, EP, Psychology, and Behavioural Economics based degrees.


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