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Heuristics: Half Baked

How pliable are behavioral heuristics?

There is an ongoing debate (of kinds) concerning the pliability of heuristics (those conscious and unconscious behavioural shortcuts we routinely rely on to get through our daily lives, which include things such as future bias and social proofing). This debate (or in this particular case fairly amicable discussion) was evident in a recent segment of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. This segment saw David Halpern (Director of the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team) and German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer discussing their own particular take on heuristics. David Halpern promotes the use of nudges (among other things) as an acknowledgement of the fact that our heuristics are fairly “baked-in” and often result in us making decisions that are bad for our long term health and happiness. Nudges (which can involve the resetting of default positions on things such as organ donor registers, or the use of social norms to encourage us to pay our taxes on time or reduce our household energy use) rely on governments taking (softly) paternalistic action to helps us address our heuristic failings. Gerd Gigerenzer argues that pernicious behavioural heuristics can be effectively circumvented through behavioural education. Gigerenzer claims that humans are not slaves to heuristics and can become more behaviourally savvy. The potential advantages of behavioural education over a nudge are that it seeks to empower the individual to control their own conduct and promises the benefit of much more sustainable forms of behavioural shifts than nudges.

These discussions speak directly to our own ongoing research into the emerging impacts of the behavioural sciences on policies around the world. Our work is sympathetic to the goals of nudge, but is grounded on a belief that humans can become more behavioural empowered. It is actually our contention that the apparent tension between nudge and behavioural education tends to be overstated. In terms of neuroscience, there seems to be something of a consensus that both heuristics and more deliberative forms of behaviour are part of a cognitive loop that is a necessary part of our daily lives. To put things another way, it would be disastrous to turn off our heuristics, even if we could. In terms of policy, nudges often involve the creative fusion of unconscious prompt (which targets our heuristics) with feedback that encourages more deliberative forms of reflection and behavioural empowerment.

It is perhaps best to think of behavioural heuristics as half-baked-in. This semi-baked depiction of heuristics reflects the necessity of rapid, automatic decision-making; acknowledges that we can get better at regulating our heuristic impulses; but also recognises that while we wait for the slow burn affects of behavioural education to kick-in, that nudges can offer an important bridging technology.

There are already a series of initiatives that reflect this understanding of heuristics. The emerging idea of a self-nudge, for example, recognises that we can learn to control our impulses, but also acknowledges that we may need to lay down some behavioural supports in our everyday life. Our own research on the links between Mindfulness training and behaviour change education is based upon the assumption that heuristics are inevitable, but that we can improve our understanding of their impacts on our actions and develop some measure of control over them.

Whether Baked-in, pliable, or half-baked, as social scientists it is reassuring to see such nuanced debates about heuristics being had in policy circles.

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