Social heuristics

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Social heuristics as a tool of bounded rationality are thought to guide behavior and decisions in the social environment.[1] Social environments tend to be characterised by complexity and uncertainty, and agents with limited informational or cognitive resources may rely on simple rules of thumb to make decisions. The class of phenomena described by social heuristics overlap with those typically investigated by social psychology and game theory. At the intersection of these fields, social heuristics have been applied to explain cooperation in the prisoner's dilemma, based on the argument that cooperation is typically advantageous in daily life, and therefore people develop a cooperation heuristic that gets applied even to one-shot anonymous interactions (the so-called "social heuristics hypothesis" of human cooperation[2]). Within social psychology, some researchers have viewed heuristics as closely linked to cognitive biases.[3] Others have argued that these biases result from the application of social heuristics depending on the structure of the environment that they operate in.[4] Researchers in the latter approach treat the study of social heuristics as closely linked to social rationality, a field of research that applies the ideas of bounded rationality and heuristics to the realm of social environments. According to them, social heuristics include those that may use social information, operate in social contexts, or both. For instance, the follow-the-majority heuristic uses social information as inputs but is not necessarily applied in a social context, while the equity-heuristic uses non-social information but in a social context such as the allocation of parental resources amongst offspring. Such heuristics may be used by humans and other animals, but may also be potentially applied to artificial intelligent systems.


Typical social heuristics as laid out in a seminal paper are:[1]

  • Imitate-the-majority heuristic, also referred to follow-the-majority heuristic. An agent using the heuristic would imitate the behavior of the majority of agents in his reference group.[5] For instance, in deciding which restaurant to choose, people tend to choose the one with the longer waiting queue.[6]
  • Imitate-the-successful heuristic, also referred to follow-the-best heuristic. An agent using the heuristic would imitate the behavior of the most successful person in her reference group.[5]
  • Equity heuristic, also referred to 1/N heuristic. Using the heuristic means equally distributing resources among the available options. The heuristic was found to be successful in the stock market[7] and also been found to describe parental resource allocation decisions: parents typically allocate their time and effort equally amongst their children.[8]
  • Social-circle heuristic. The heuristic is used to infer which of two alternatives has the higher value. An agent using the heuristic would search through her social circles in order of their proximity to the self (self, family, friends, and acquaintances), stopping the search as soon as the number of instances of one alternative within a circle exceeds that of the other, choosing the alternative with the higher tally.[4]
  • Tit-for-Tat heuristic. In deciding whether to cooperate or defect, an agent using the heuristic would cooperate in the first round and in subsequent rounds, reciprocate his partner's action of cooperation or defection in the previous round.[9] The heuristic is typically investigated using a prisoner's dilemma in game theory, where there is substantial evidence that people use such a heuristic, leading to intuitive reciprocation.[10]

Automatic vs. unconscious[edit]

In the dominant dual-systems approach in social psychology, heuristics are believed to be automatically and unconsciously applied.[11] The study of social heuristics as a tool of bounded rationality asserts that heuristics may be used consciously or unconsciously.[12]


  1. ^ a b Hertwig, R.; Hoffrage, U. (2012). "Simple Heuristics: The Foundations of Adaptive Social Behavior". Simple Heuristics in a Social World. p. 3. ISBN 9780195388435. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195388435.003.0001. 
  2. ^ Rand, D. G.; Peysakhovich, A.; Kraft-Todd, G. T.; Newman, G. E.; Wurzbacher, O.; Nowak, M. A.; Greene, J. D. (2014). "Social heuristics shape intuitive cooperation". Nature Communications. 5: 3677. PMID 24751464. doi:10.1038/ncomms4677. 
  3. ^ Krueger, J. I.; Funder, D. C. (2004). "Towards a balanced social psychology: Causes, consequences, and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 27 (3): 313–27. PMID 15736870. doi:10.1017/S0140525X04000081. 
  4. ^ a b Pachur, T.; Hertwig, R.; Rieskamp, J. R. (2013). "Intuitive judgments of social statistics: How exhaustive does sampling need to be?". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 49 (6): 1059–1077. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.07.004. 
  5. ^ a b Boyd, R., & Richerson, P.J. (2005). "Solving the Puzzle of Human Cooperation." Evolution and Culture. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
  6. ^ Raz, O., & Ert, E. (2008). ""Size Counts": the Effect of Queue Length on Choice Between Similar Restaurants." NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 35 MN : Association for Consumer Research
  7. ^ Demiguel, V.; Garlappi, L.; Uppal, R. (2006). "1/N". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.911512. 
  8. ^ Hertwig, R.; Davis, J. N.; Sulloway, F. J. (2002). "Parental investment: How an equity motive can produce inequality". Psychological Bulletin. 128 (5): 728–745. PMID 12206192. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.728. 
  9. ^ The Evolution of Cooperation. 1984. ISBN 0465021220. 
  10. ^ Rand, D. G.; Nowak, M. A. (2013). "Human cooperation". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 17 (8): 413–25. PMID 23856025. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.06.003. 
  11. ^ Chaiken, Y. & Trope, Y. (1999). "Dual-process Theories in Social Psychology" NY: Guilford Press
  12. ^ Gigerenzer, G. (2004). "Fast and frugal heuristics: The tools of bounded rationality." Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making Malden: Blackwell.