Recognition heuristic and cognitive effort

2015-04-22 14.27.57Having the good fortune to be lost in Venice, I was reminded of the nuances of the recognition heuristic. My wife found the perfect antique store which was unsurprisingly closed for lunch. We went on, but a couple of hours later we tried to recreate our steps. For much of the journey, we did well having only to recognize that we had seen a particular store or archway or bridge before. Unfortunately, that broke down when we realized that we were retracing our steps in a five minute period. We still remembered that walk to the restaurant the first night, but it was unfortunately not differentiated in our minds. This was certainly an example of less knowledge being more. Eventually, using a combination of GPS and maps we found our way back to our hotel, but we never did find that antique store. And I was trying.

This post is based on a paper by Benjamin Hilbig, Martha Michalkiewicz, Marta Castela, Rudiger Pohl and Edgar Erdfelder: “Whatever the cost? Information integration in memory-based inferences depends on cognitive effort.” that was scheduled to appear in Memory and Cognition 2014. Fundamental uncertainty is a not uncommon situation for our decision making. There is an ongoing argument with the fast and frugal heuristics toolbox approach and the single tool approaches of evidence accumulation and parallel constraint satisfaction. However that argument depends on the particular task, the type of task, and on and on. I am still waiting for a giant table that puts all those things together.

The recognition heuristic presupposes that probabilistic inferences are based on recognition of options in isolation, that is, without consideration of further probabilistic cues. RH can account for the behavior of some individuals at some times, but when do people rely on it?  We know that RH use tends to increase when there is time pressure, a deliberative mode of thinking, and depletion of executive resources. The evidence is that the higher the accuracy of the RH and the stronger the need for effort reduction, the more closely observable behavior corresponds to the predictions of the RH. In turn, the availability of knowledge beyond recognition appears to foster information integration and thus non-use of the RH.

In a series of three experiments the authors tested the prediction that information integration (as opposed to ignorance-based, one-cue decision-making) is fostered as information becomes more easily accessible and subjectively more accurate. In three experiments the authors
manipulated (a) the availability of information beyond recognition, (b) the subjective
usefulness of this information, and (c) the cognitive costs associated with acquiring this
information. Across the experiments they consistently found that providing additional information – substantially reduced single-cue reliance on recognition and thus RH-use. Two experiments demonstrated that this basic effect could be altered in a way predicted by the notion that accessibility and subjective accuracy of information determine the probability of this information being integrated: In Experiment 2, RH-use was further reduced once participants were additionally given a hint on how best to restructure the additional information and how accurate this would be. In Experiment 3, the knowledge effect was essentially eliminated (and thus RH-use restored to the same level as observed in the control condition) once information was less accessible and had to be effortfully distilled from scrambled letter sequences.

According to Hilbig et al, results on RH-use were in line with predictions derived from an adaptive strategy-selection framework and the idea of an effort-accuracy trade-off: Cue integration (as opposed to ignorance-based, one-cue decision-making) became more likely the less effort this required. At the same time, the current setup slightly favored cue integration in terms of accuracy. By definition, in a compensatory environment, a compensatory strategy (such as an equal-weights rule that simply counts the sum of cue values for each choice option) will at least marginally outperform a non-compensatory rule such as the RH (post Heuristic and Linear Models). In the current experiments, the environment was indeed compensatory, implying that cue integration was indeed the superior strategy in terms of accuracy.

In summary, the work further specifies the determinants of fast-and-frugal decision making based on recognition. In line with the notion of adaptive strategy selection, the reported experiments show that information integration becomes more prevalent as information is more easily accessible and comes with higher subjective certainty. In my mind it seems that the recognition heuristic can be added to the front end of evidence accumulation and parallel constraint satisfaction.

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