Why do we focus on one characteristic to compare when choosing between alternatives?
Take-the-best Heuristic, explained.
What is the take-the-best heuristic?
The take-the-best heuristic is a shortcut we use when making decisions between alternatives, so that we can quickly make decisions without having to know all the information about each alternative.
When we employ the take-the-best heuristic, we decide based on only one cue or characteristic which we think differentiates the options.1 Instead of considering all the reasons why we might choose one alternative over the other, we pick one reason and base our decision solely on that reason.2
Where this bias occurs
Picture yourself at the grocery store, looking through the food aisles. You’re looking for milk – which these days, means you’re met with dozens of options. Not only do you have to decide between fat percentage (skim, 2% whole milk) but also different sources (almond, soy, oat, dairy). That’s before we even factor in different flavours and sweetness! How can you make a decision that will satisfy your needs quickly when there are so many alternatives?
It’s in moments like these that you are likely to use the take-the-best heuristic. It would take too much time for you to carefully consider all the different reasons why you might pick one milk over the other. Reasons can include price, value, nutritional benefits, brand, etc. So, you’re likely to pick just one reason and compare the milks based on that reason alone. Price often gets used as the take-the-best reason, which makes it easy for you to pick – you’ll just get the cheapest one!
The take-the-best heuristic can be employed whenever you must choose between alternatives. The shortcut can help make decision-making simpler and more effective, but also means that you’re ignoring a lot of variables which could matter in truly determining which choice is the best one.
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The example of deciding between milk alternatives makes the take-the-best heuristic seem rather beneficial and logical. It would take too long to read the nutritional values of each type of milk or to research which brand is best – price seems like a rational way to determine which item to purchase.
In part, it’s true that the take-the-best heuristic can be beneficial. It’s a form of bounded rationality, where we make decisions that satisfy our needs instead of wasting our time and resources to figure out what the best possible decision is. On the other hand, that means we’re only making decisions that are ‘good enough’ and not optimal.
On an individual basis, using the take-the-best heuristic seems pretty harmless. However, it can quickly snowball into making decisions based on biases.
Imagine an airport security officer using the take-the-best heuristic when determining who to select for a random search. There are so many variables that could determine which passengers they select – their age, how many people they are travelling with, how much luggage they have, or, more problematically, their race. The airport security officer may make discriminatory decisions, singling out a particular race as being more dangerous and requiring a random search.1
Why it happens
On a daily basis, we have to make hundreds of decisions. We don’t have the time, energy, or resources to make each of these decisions using all of the available information. So, our brain uses shortcuts — known as heuristics — to make fast decisions, and when it comes to the take-the-best heuristic, we can at least rely on one reason that rationalizes why we made that decision.
When we are faced with alternatives, we first quickly register all the different criteria cues available to us, and single one out. The one that we choose is usually the first one that we determine adequately differentiates between options and makes our choice easy.3 Returning to the example of choosing milk, nutritional value would not be a likely candidate for a take-the-best chosen cue, as it is a vague criterion. Price, alternatively, clearly discriminates between the alternatives.
The steps that go into the take-the-best heuristic are:
- Search rule: Look through cues and evaluate which one will allow for fast but accurate decisions.
- Stopping rule: Stop the search when you encounter the first cue that will differentiate between alternatives.
- Decision rule: Make a decision based on which scores better according to the chosen cue.4
Why it is important
Although we employ the take-the-best heuristic unconsciously, it’s likely that we use it in a majority of our daily decisions. We make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every day and heuristics allow us to make good decisions even with constraints like time, available knowledge, and cognitive ability. Even if the take-the-best heuristic has been shown to lead to optimal choices, we should be aware of its downfalls too so we know in which situations we should avoid using it.
How to avoid it
We do not necessarily want to avoid the take-the-best heuristic. We need shortcuts like it so we aren’t overwhelmed by choices, a tendency known as choice overload. It is a form of satisficing, which can actually be pretty useful and make us happier than getting bogged down trying to make perfect decisions. According to Gerd Gigerenzer, the behavioral scientist who first theorized the take-the-best heuristic, and cognitive scientist Peter M. Todd, “satisficing and heuristics save time, cost and resources and are therefore efficient, fast and frugal.” 5
We just need to make sure the cue we select in the search rule is the best cue to evaluate our options. We shouldn’t just pick the first criterion that comes to mind, but a criterion we value, which you can also easily evaluate in all the alternatives. Price is a good example of a reasonable cue to use, while something like color or aesthetics aren’t, unless the alternatives you’re deciding between are pieces of art.
The opposite of the take-the-best approach to decision-making is tallying, another popular heuristic. When people tally, they choose the alternative that performs best across the most measures.6 It might be best when making choices between alternatives, to use a decision-making process that falls somewhere in the middle. You might identify the top two or three criteria and choose the alternative that performs best overall. That way, you are still saving some time, but are making a choice based on more holistic criteria.
How it all started
The take-the-best heuristic was first identified by behavioral scientist Gerd Gigerenzer and psychologist Daniel Goldstein. Gigerenzer and Goldstein bravely contradicted what the fathers of behavioral science Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky had said, and claimed that heuristics were not a sign of irrational decision-making, but an adaptive tool that helps humans deal with the vast amount of information they are presented with in the modern world.7
In 1996, Gigerenzer and Goldstein first introduced the take-the-best heuristic in their paper, Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality. Up until this point, economists and psychologists had put forward models of decision-making that assumed our minds (and the minds of animals) had unlimited time, knowledge, and cognitive ability, which allowed us to make rational decisions. Alternatively, Gigerenzer and Goldstein suggested that we can make rational decisions thanks to fast and frugal algorithms which help us to quickly sort through data and make optimal decisions.8
In their study, Gigerenzer and Goldstein used a computer simulation to compare the outcomes of two different decision-making processes: the take-the-best heuristic, or classic ‘rational inference procedures’ like multiple regression. They found that the take-the-best algorithm outperformed the classic rational algorithms, in speed and accuracy. They concluded heuristics do not impede rationally, but are accurate and dependable tools we can use to make optimal decisions.8
In 1999, Gigerenzer continued his research on the take-the-best heuristic and published a book with cognitive scientist Peter Todd, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart.9 In this book, the two introduced another take-the-best approach. In this alternative approach named the Take The Last approach, individuals don’t just pick the first cue that differentiates between alternatives — they pick a cue that has proven to work in the past. If in the past, a criterion helped you make an optimal decision, you’ll pick that cue instead of searching through possible cues.9 This approach suggests that individuals retain information on how valid a cue is, which we might sense as intuition.
Example 1 - The take-the-best approach to elections
Close to an election, our tvs, newspapers and even our social media sites are flooded with information about the politicians in the running. Even if we put aside that a lot of it is fake news, it’s difficult to meaningfully register the real information and analyze it to make the best decision on who to vote for. How can we predict which politician will best address the issues we care about?
Choosing what we believe to be the most important issue facing the country and deciding which politician we think will best address it, is one way to surpass the information overload and make an informed vote. In 2012, business student J. Scott Armstrong and systems analysis student Andreas Graefe conducted a study that inferred whether the take-the-best heuristic is used when voting.10
The study looked at elections retrospectively. They realized that many people do not properly know how the government works but somehow, end up ‘correctly’ voting. By correctly, Armstrong and Graefe meant that even without all knowledge, people tend to make decisions they would have chosen if they had all the information available. They analyzed data on which issue voters regarded as being the most important issue facing the country for 100 days before the election and which candidate people thought would best address that issue. They found the candidate that was thought to best address the major issue almost always won the popular vote, which suggested that was the criterion individuals were using to make their decision.10
From their study, Armstrong and Graefe concluded that politicians should focus on developing their campaign for the most important issue faced by the country, rather than try and tackle all the different problems, as people have a tendency to use the take-the-best heuristic when voting.10
Example 2 - Can the take-the-best heuristic help police determine which houses are at risk?
Imagine you were asked to determine which of two houses was more likely to be burgled. That seems like an impossible task – how on earth could you differentiate which house is most likely to be burgled based on the appearance of the house alone? Yet, a study conducted in 2009 found that people can quite accurately predict this risk.11 Being able to understand what factors make it more likely a house will be burgled can help individuals ensure that their houses don’t have any of those cues, which will make their house less appealing to burglars.
Criminologists Rocio Garcia-Retamero and Mandeep K. Dhami asked three different types of people to determine which residential property was most likely to be broken into: burglars (in prison), police officers, and graduate students.11
There were various cues that could have helped them make their decision: the height of hedges, how well kept the property was, the type of properly, whether lights were on, whether the letter box was full, the location of the property in regard to the street, whether there are windows/doors on the ground floor, and whether or not there was a burglar system. After having identified which house they thought was more likely to be burgled, participants were asked to rate which criteria they had valued the most in making their decision.11
Garcia-Retamero and Dhami found that police officers and burglars were more likely to use the take-the-best heuristic to make their decision, while the students were more likely to factor in multiple variables. They concluded the take-the-best heuristic is a sign of experience with a particular situation, which allows individuals to focus on cues that in the past have been correct identifiers of the correct decision.11
What it is
The take-the-best heuristic is a mental shortcut we use, where we use only one criterion to make a judgment between alternatives.
Why it happens
The take-the-best heuristic is a tool that we use to be able to make quick, accurate decisions without having to know all the information on each variable. It can be understood as a tool through which to make an educated guess.
Example 1 – Elections
Politics is an area where we often encounter information overload. As a result, we tend to use the take-the-best heuristic to decide which candidate to vote for. We vote for the candidate we think will best address one major issue, instead of informing ourselves on their stance for multiple issues. Even though we make the decision without all the information, their stance on the major issue is a good predictor of whether we would vote for them knowing all the information.
Example 2 – Burglaries
The take-the-best heuristic is usually an unconscious process that we might refer to as intuition. The more we experience similar choices, the more likely we are to use the take-the-best heuristic because we know it will accurately discriminate between options. That’s why police officers and burglars, who have past experiences with burglaries, were more likely to use the heuristic when determining which residential property was likely to be burgled, in comparison to graduate students with no experience with burglaries.
How to avoid it
The take-the-best heuristic isn’t only a shortcut that makes our decision-making simpler and faster — it can lead to more accurate decisions than trying to process all of the available information. We don’t need to avoid the heuristic, but instead, ensure we are using a valid cue as the reason behind our decision.
Related TDL articles
Although the take-the-best heuristic uses only one cue as a determinant between choices, studies have found it tends to be pretty reliable in choosing the best option. Sometimes, we just have a hunch! This article, written by our contributor Brett Whysel, examines how intuition comes into play when making decisions. He explores when it is reasonable to use our intuition and how we can ensure that we use the gut-feeling effectively.
The take-the-best heuristic can help us overcome the overwhelming feeling we get when we are presented with too many options. After months of stay-at-home orders, cancelled celebrations and isolation, we are about to be spoiled by choice —maybe too much choice. Instead of revelling in our newfound freedom, we might become constricted by choice overload. That’s why our contributor Hannah Chappell wrote this article withtips on how to avoid choice-overload in our post-pandemic world.