Heuristics in Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Posted on August 17, 2007

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Werner Callebaut, the scientific manager at the KLI said something a couple of weeks ago whose wisdom I am finding out:

If you are doing research in one of the sciences of cognition then the first step is to check if something on the topic has appeared recently in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

BBS has a unique and very effective approach. It publishes articles which lay out some interesting approach and then a whole slew of commentaries from others in the field. The result is having an overview of the issues that are currently being dealt with in that area by the people at the forefront of the research. Apart from bringing one up to date in an area, the format gives a ready list of the most relevant further reading and an idea of which manes to look out for. Absolutely brilliant.

I have followed up Werner’s suggestion and with very good effect, indeed. In 2000 BBS had back-to-back two articles on theories of human reasoning. The first was an article by Stanovich and West looking at research into individual differences in reasoning, and the second was a precis of Gigerenzer’s, Todd’s and ABC group’s book on heuristics. Admittedly, before looking at these articles I’d already favoured the Gigerenzer approach but what I read only reinforced my opinion. Stanovich and West argue for an essentially dualist vision of human cognition with two completely different processes – one tied closely to logic and another that is far more basic. If that sounds vague it is not due to my description but due to how S&W present their version of dual process reasoning – as a number of commentators point out. The basic rationale seems to be not more more developed than that humans are capable of doing very different things with their minds. Indeed, I ended up wondering why only two processes and not more. This does not mean that S&W are wrong but I get very suspicious when people readily reify on the basis of an apparent distinction. Especially when, due to that reification, the approach makes it hard to see how an evolved cognitive system should have come to be able to do logic. Another thing about SW that I found off-putting was their willful misrepresentation of the Gigerenzer position. To call a bounded reasoning position Panglossian is, to put is gently, misleading. Their often question begging responses to the comments did not help.

The Todd and Gigerenzer article, in itself, was not particularly informative for me as I’d already read quite a bit about fast and frugal heuristics. Still, I found it raised three vital issues that then re-appeared in the commentaries:

1. The picture T&G present avoids issues of development but, ultimately, development has to be dealt with both in terms of individual heuristics and their complex interrelations.

2. Development will also fundamentally affect the issue of how it is that the appropriate heuristics get used in particular contexts (either by application of existing heuristics or development of new ones).

3. Finally, the specific issue of how humans are able to use logic will need to be dealt with – something that at least at first looks a mile away from the simple heuristics that T&G discuss.

T&G don’t give really satisfactory solutions to these problems but the fact that they do not merely shows the status quo in the research and they are quite open about the limits of what has been acheived. A vital point that is implied by Wimsatt in his comment is that the heuristics that T&G discuss need not be thought of as representative but may only be the simplest examples that are easiest to study – this opens a research path to understanding human logical skills. I think he is absolutely right about that so that it is, in Adam Morton’s phrase, heuristics all the way up.

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