Social Heuristics: The Pros and Cons of Gut Feelings

In the previous post on Machine Learning vs Human Learning, I briefly mentioned that the heuristics used by humans makes our learning different from machines. Babies are able to figure out how physical and social interactions work in their environments using a package of intuitive physics and intuitive psychology that they are born with. Building upon reinforcement and conditioning, we learn to sense if someone is happy, angry or sad, based on the expressions and behaviours of others.

But are heuristics always successful in helping people to figure things out? When do they fail in serving their purpose and how does that happen? Before answering those questions, let’s first try to understand what heuristics really are.

What are social heuristics?

Heuristics are thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that increases the efficiency of decision making in specific situations, but applying them in the wrong contexts produces errors that are called cognitive biases (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) [1]. Heuristics used in social contexts are not so different. People have to make sense of social information on a daily basis, and distinguish the types of signals they receive from their interactions with others (Topolinski & Strack, 2015) [2]. This social sense-making is often done through innate heuristics, that are able to give quick and accurate judgments when used in the correct social context, but otherwise result in social biases for inappropriate applications.

Gerd Gigerenzer from the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition (ABC) group of Max Planck Institute is a strong proponent of fast and frugal heuristics. He argued that heuristics are based on ecological rationality, and the human brain has evolved to generate gut feelings using these heuristics (Gigerenzer, 2008) [3]. While he admits that gut feelings are very much dependent on the environmental context, he believes that these feelings are responsible for people’s social intelligence. Complicated problems are often thought to be solved by sophisticated calculations, but for complex social judgments, social intelligence is apparently more useful than abstract reasoning. Examples of how heuristics are useful in social contexts will be discussed next.

When are social heuristics useful?

The most fundamental use of social heuristics is probably for social affiliation (Marsh, 2002) [4]. In order to build rapport with other people, it is not only important to know how to interpret non-verbal cues in communication, but to use them as well (Argyle, 1991) [5]. For example, by focusing on the similarities shared with other people, an in-group identity can form together with the development of trust and reliance (Tajfel, 1974) [6]. On the first occasion of socialising with others, individuals have been observed to use this heuristic intuitively. They typically try to find out what are the interests of the other party, and then discuss about the things that they share in common, instead of dwelling on their differences.

Cooperation is another area of social interactions where heuristics can help people in making difficult judgments. Individuals are generally reluctant to cooperate with strangers, as it is hard to determine someone’s trustworthiness and dependability (Marsh, 2002) [4]. An easy way out is to look for familiar people to work with, since their reputations will already be known. Working with familiar people also ensures that trust is less likely to be violated, as defecting will necessarily result in the damage of one’s reputation within the community. To signal one’s willingness to cooperate, individuals will find ways to demonstrate commitment and also seek consensus among the parties involved. These actions decrease the uncertainty in social sense-making, so that others can more easily detect one’s intentions to cooperate.

In appropriate circumstances, these social heuristics should work as expected. But in today’s complex society, there are occasions where they can point the individual in the wrong direction, and intuitions are blamed for the poor judgments. We will next examine some social biases where heuristics have gone wrong.

How do social biases occur?

Topolinski & Strack (2015) postulated that the underlying mechanisms for social heuristics include using feelings as information as well as the fluency of processing [2]. As social situations often lack good information for making judgments, feelings become the most salient source of information and the fluency of information processing through the availability heuristic functions like a signpost that directs the individual. However, Tversky & Kahneman (1973) has shown several instances where this heuristic resulted in erroneous judgments, such as how news reporting increases the frequency of exposure to rare events like aviation disasters, causing people to believe that they happen more often than they actually do [7].

Similarly, Rothbart et al. (1978) pointed out that in societies where individuals have little contact with minority groups, much of their knowledge about these groups comes from the news media [8]. Because deviant behaviour is often considered to be more newsworthy, repeated news reporting of deviant individuals in minority groups can create a negative image of these groups. In addition, people tend to have more information about their in-group than out-groups, which leads them to think that the proportion of deviant individuals in their in-group is not as high as their out-groups. Hence, when the availability heuristic is used to recall information about minority groups, undesirable social stereotypes can form.

The fundamental attribution error is another perspective of understanding how stereotypes and social judgment errors can happen. The fundamental attribution error states that individuals tend to interpret the behaviour of others as a reflection of internal traits, and underestimate the external factors that influence those behaviours (Ross, 1977) [9]. An explanation for why this error occurs is based on the heuristic of using the most salient cues to explain people’s behaviours, which is often their observable personality more than their environment.

The availability heuristic and fundamental attribution error portray how heuristics can become social biases in a complex environment, and result in stereotypes that are detrimental to a society. If that is the case, should people avoid using heuristics?

So can we trust our gut feelings?

It is difficult to say whether heuristics can be trusted, because “gut feelings are in fact neither impeccable nor stupid” (Gigerenzer, 2008) [3]. In optical illusions, the human visual system may seem to make incorrect judgments when our eyes get tricked. But would it make sense to label the visual system defective when such illusions occur? Probably not, because the current system is merely a reflection of how adaptations have evolved to be useful in the ancestral human’s most common environment. But outside this environment, the adaptations should not be expected to function accordingly. Similarly, heuristics are useful for the contexts that they have evolved in, but when they malfunction outside those contexts, it is not because they are unreliable.

Although heuristics may not always give the most accurate judgment in social situations, avoiding them is usually not an option. Social heuristics are innate in us, to help us make sense of complex social interactions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to bear in mind that an overreliance on heuristics can potentially result in judgment errors that manifest themselves as social stereotypes.



  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124–1131.
  2. Topolinski, S. & Strack, F. (2015). Heuristics in Social Cognition. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) (pp. 825–828).
  3. Gigerenzer, G. (2008). Gut feelings: Short cuts to better decision making. Penguin Uk.
  4. Marsh, B. (2002). Heuristics as social tools. New Ideas in Psychology, 20(1), 49-57.
  5. Argyle, M. (1991). Cooperation: The Basis of Sociability. Routledge.
  6. Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Information (International Social Science Council), 13(2), 65-93.
  7. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.
  8. Rothman, A. J., & Hardin, C. D. (1997). Differential use of the availability heuristic in social judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(2), 123-138.
  9. Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social psychology, 10, 173-220.

3 thoughts on “Social Heuristics: The Pros and Cons of Gut Feelings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s