SMART HEURISTICS: GERD GIGERENZER [3.31.03]
What interests me is the question of how humans learn to live with uncertainty. Before the scientific revolution determinism was a strong ideal. Religion brought about a denial of uncertainty, and many people knew that their kin or their race was exactly the one that God had favored. They also thought they were entitled to get rid of competing ideas and the people that propagated them. How does a society change from this condition into one in which we understand that there is this fundamental uncertainty? How do we avoid the illusion of certainty to produce the understanding that everything, whether it be a medical test or deciding on the best cure for a particular kind of cancer, has a fundamental element of uncertainty?
more information always better?" asks Gerd Gigerenzer. "Why
else would bestsellers on how to make good decisions
tell us to consider all pieces of information, weigh
them carefully, and compute the optimal choice, preferably
with the aid of a fancy statistical software package?
In economics, Nobel prizes are regularly awarded
for work that assumes that people make decisions
as if they had perfect information and could compute
the optimal solution for the problem at hand. But
how do real people make good decisions under the
usual conditions of little time and scarce information?
Consider how players catch a ballin baseball,
cricket, or soccer. It may seem that they would have
to solve complex differential equations in their
heads to predict the trajectory of the ball. In fact,
players use a simple heuristic. When a ball comes
in high, the player fixates the ball and starts running.
The heuristic is to adjust the running speed so that
the angle of gaze remains constant that is,
the angle between the eye and the ball. The player
can ignore all the information necessary to compute
the trajectory, such as the balls initial velocity,
distance, and angle, and just focus on one piece
of information, the angle of gaze."
GERD GIGERENZER is Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He won the AAAS Prize for the best article in the behavioral sciences. He is the author of Calculated Risks: How To Know When Numbers Deceive You, the German translation of which won the Scientific Book of the Year Prize in 2002. He has also published two academic books on heuristics, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (with Peter Todd & The ABC Research Group) and Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (with Reinhard Selten, a Nobel laureate in economics).
John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
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