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Heuristics to Make Inferences about Other's Behaviour

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Psychology

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Explain why some theorists believe we use heuristics to make inferences about others behaviour. Critically discuss the advantages of heuristic processing in person perception.

Everyday in life, we have to make quick decisions. How we make these decisions is subject to much debate within the psychological field. Stanovich’s Dual-Process Theory (1999) proposes that humans use one of two routes to process information; the systematic processing route which is analytical, computational and conscious, or the heuristic processing route which in unconscious and automatic. This ‘thoughtless’ process (Arkes & Ayton, 1999) is based on rules of thumb that guide decision making based upon a more limited, accessible sample of available information (APA, 2017).

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As a result of relying on less information, they are faster, easier to process, and require little cognitive effort (Klaczynski, 2001). Heuristics rely on semantic memory structures and conceptualized representations by using prior knowledge to inform future knowledge, leading us to faster judgements (Klaczynski,2001). Although a subconscious process, heuristics are an integral part of human cognition and an essential part of daily life, allowing us to navigate through complex decisions, person perception and inferring others behaviour, all with little effort or attention required (Crisp & Turner, 2014). As mentioned, heuristics have many different functions, but more crucially, for our perception of other people (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Person perception is defined as an individual, complex judgement which can be the result of either direct or indirect inferences by the observer (Hastrof, Schneider & Polefka, 1970).  It forms a foundation upon which all future judgements and interactions are formed, playing a vital role in our relationships, interactions and the way in which we relate to people (Hastrof, 1970). This essay will firstly explore different theorists’ views surrounding the use of heuristics, before offering some advantages and disadvantages of their role in inferring others behaviour and forming person perceptions.

The way in which we use and organize social information to form perceptions of people is controversial. Humans were initially described as ‘naïve scientists’ (Heider, 1958); analytical beings who strived to seek predictability and control through assigning causality to other’s behaviour. This strive formed the drive for us to seek stability and control through predicting social behaviours, requiring us to observes someone’s behaviour and mentally attribute the causality, a process requiring conscious and in-depth analysis.  This innate desire to attribute causality became known as attribution theory (Heider, 1958). Furthermore, Hastrof (1970) supported this theory by labelling humans as ‘casual agents’, believing we deem people to be potential causes of their own behaviour, thus the power of person perception lying within the perceiver. These analogous theories believe the perceiver uses a central processing, analytical approach to infer someone’s behaviour and form person perception.

Alternatively, the ‘cognitive miser’ theory states we are born with an innate ability to use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, to make sense of the world around us through the process of categorization (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).  This involves placing people into categories based upon a common relationship which could be variables such as age, gender or race. Chaiken (1979) further supported this theory, believing heuristics were acquired, learnt cognitions and stored in our semantic memory, making them an innate, unconscious process. However, despite having strong supporting evidence, these models are very rigid, allowing little room for cognitive flexibility.  In resolution for this, Kruglanski (1996) argued we are ‘motivated tacticians’; flexible and adaptive thinkers who switch between both the heuristic and central processing route depending on the amount of time, cognitive load, importance of the decision and information we have available to us (Macrae, Hewstone & Griffiths, 1993). Although conflicting, these differing theories are just vehicles for explaining the process of decision making. Whichever route is taken, the innately human process will still occur, making it imperative to evaluate the use of each route.

There is strong evidence that heuristics can be a reliable cognitive shortcut, especially when the task is well practised (Johnson and Rabb, 2003). Heuristic processing may be more advantageous in well-practised situations (Beiloc, 2004).  One study discovered professional handball players and golfers, who had less thinking time, made better decisions than those who were given more time (Johnson and Rabb, 2003, Beiloc, 2004).  The authors suggested that when given more time, conscious thought interfered with more automatic processing, thus negatively altering their decision-making skills. One explanation for this comes from unconscious thought theory, hypothesising that our unconscious has intuitively adapted to making complex decisions, thus meaning important and powerful decisions are best dealt with unconsciously (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). It believes conscious thought is too vulnerable to biases such as social desirability or convergence, thus meaning if we think too hard, or too consciously about such decisions, the wrong choice will be made, causing unhappiness with the decision (Dijksterhuis & Van Olden, 2006). If true, then this suggests the heuristic processing route is best used in perceiving people, especially if we have prior experience in dealing with that subtype of person.

An alternative explanation as to why we use heuristics is due to their time-saving nature, and to reduce our cognitive load. Research suggests that the human brain receives up to 11 million stimuli from the environment every second, yet only has the capacity to process 50 (Shannon, 1948). Therefore, being as our mental resources are highly valued and fundamentally limited (Fiske & Taylor, 1991), it makes sense that we would endeavour to use cognitive shortcuts wherever possible. Such heuristics allow us to rapidly assess and place labels on people, thus reducing our cognitive load and the time taken to form perceptions (Cioff, 1997).  

Another heuristic involved in person perception is the widely reported, yet often misconstrued concept of stereotypes, a process in which we attribute a set of cognitions, or attitudes, towards a set of individuals, then extend this set of attributes to a larger group of people. However, despite being prone to bias and error, they are incredibly advantageous as they save time; allowing us to rapidly assess large amounts of social information (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991), that it would be nearly impossible to do otherwise. Applicable to every aspect of life, they allow us the cognitive capacity to focus on more central, important tasks (Macrae, Milne & Bodenhausen 1994). However, despite being incredibly advantageous, they are also very dangerous, and often detrimental. A modern phenomenon, known as the stereotype threat, sees the exposure to a negative stereotype during a task causing a negative effect to the individual doing the task (Spencer, Steele & Quinn, 1999). In other words, the negative stereotype inhibits performance. One study found that women performed worse on a maths test when told the test would produce gender differences compared to when they told there would be no difference while doing the same test (Spencer, Stelle & Quinn, 1999). The authors later replicated the study on men, showing the stereotype threat is not confined by gender. Forbes, Schmader and Allen (2008) attempted to explain this by suggesting there is a neurological basis behind the stereotype threat and found higher activation in the anterior cingulate cortex in stereotype-threatening conditions compared to control conditions. This increased activity provides more vigilance within the given task, decreasing central executive functioning needed to perform cognitive tasks, leading to poorer performance. This suggests how our basis of perceiving people isn’t just cognitive, but also biological, which may make such heuristic errors harder to overcome.

Furthermore, although hard to articulate their original origin (Epstein, 2016), there is evidence to suggest heuristics are an evolutionary survival function (Hamlin, 2016). The gaze heuristic, documented as ‘the only known technique used to intercept prey’ was used to source food, protect our offspring and fight off any predators (Holmes and Sherman, 1982). The animal kingdom still utilises such a function (Steven & King, 2012), although as top of the food chain, humans no longer need too. As an adaptively rational cognitive mechanism (Gigerenzer & Todd, 1999), our heuristic system has cleverly adapted along with society. It is still utilised for self-protection in modern civilisation through the use of the familiarity heuristic, a mechanism in which we assume that circumstances underlying past behaviour are still present in a new situation (Tyversky & Kahneman, 1974). This suggests that our heuristic system has played a part in protecting our species through being able to perceive people as threats, detecting threatening behaviour and then acting accordingly to protect us from harm.

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However, despite being highly advantageous to human cognition, heuristics incur many disadvantages. One widely discussed limitation within literature is that of cognitive biases. Heuristic processing can incur over a dozen systematic biases, such as the base-rate fallacy, overconfidence, or, that of attribution substitution (Kahneman & Fredrik, 2002). This occurs when judgements about a target attribute is subconsciously obtained through heuristic attributes due to them being more easily accessible, consequently ignoring lesser obvious attributes (Smith & Bahill, 2009). We subconsciously tend to look for the more tangible, obvious attributes to explain someone’s behaviour, rather than doing the computationally complex analysis of person perception from scratch (Poulton, 2009), consequently leading to errors in judgement. A second bias frequently occurring within social perceptions is the base-rate fallacy, a phenomenon in which we ignore statistical evidence in the presence of more representative information due to this information being more cognitively accessible (Crisp & Turner, 2014). It causes us to focus on the generic, immediately tangible information we hold about a person, rather than questioning our initial judgements and finding out more subtle, lesser known details. The automatic nature of such biases means it is very difficult to distinguish between making a valid, person perception, or an automatic, bias evaluation.

Considering all these biases, it is easy to see how the human mind succumbs to more prevalent and problematic person perceptions, such as prejudices, or racism. Such biases lead us to divide people up into ingroups (people in the group), creating ingroup favouritism and outgroup denigration (the degrading people outside of your group) (Crisp & Turner, 2014). Consequently, this leads to the Outgroup Homogeneity Effect – the tendency to view an outgroup as homogenous, or as ‘all the same’ (Jones, Wood & Quattrone, 1981). This can have detrimental effects for growing crisis’s such as racism.  One study found that the stronger the ingroup identity, the stronger the outgroup derogation when comparing a group of nationals’ attitudes towards their own nationality vs their attitudes towards immigrants (Fredric & Falomir-Pichastor, 2018). This has damaging implications for the lives of immigrants, making them more likely to suffer from reduced access to employment, healthcare and education (Williams & Jackson, 2005), or more detrimentally, ill health, cardiovascular disease and strokes (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2007). Basing initial judgements on such stereotypical assumptions leaves small margins for a non-heuristic route to be taken and go against the perceived outgroup identity, more difficult for people of that race to integrate into the in-group, resulting in more segregation and isolation, thus perpetuating the stereotype further (Fredric & Falomir-Pichastor, 2018). Furthermore, the racial implicit association task found that over 70% of people would pair the positive adjective of ‘good’ with ‘white people’ compared to ‘black people’ (Greenwald, McGee & Schwartz, 1998). These shockingly high biases are often caused by heuristic errors. It is only by taking the central, naïve scientist approach (Heider, 1958) to perceiving people outside our ingroup that we can begin to start to shift and change damaging stereotypes and prejudices within our society (Fredric & Falomir-Pichastor, 2018).

Moreover, the accuracy of the heuristic processing route is subject to extraneous variables, such as the physiological factors of fatigue, sleep deprivation and cognitive overload (Croskerry, Singhal & Mamede, 2013). This leads us to question the accuracy and reliability of our heuristic judgments when these determinants are present. It has been shown that negative moods have more of a pronounced effect on our person perception than more positive moods (Forgas & Bower, 1987). This can have bigger implications in certain settings compared to others. For example, it is estimated that psychologists spend 95% of their time in ‘intuitive mode’ (Croskerry, Singhal & Mamede, 2013, ii58), similarly to the heuristic processing route. Although often advantageous, if any of the above physiological determinants are present, it could lead to a variety of errors in judgement when inferring patients’ behaviours, such as potential misdiagnoses, which would then be difficult to retract. This highlights the impact of incorrect heuristic judgements in higher-risk, professional settings compared to lower-risk, more personal settings.  Additionally, the amount of power someone holds in the situation in which they are inferring behaviour has been found to affected  if the heuristic processing route is used (Klaczynski,2001), suggesting when holding a position of authority, we are more likely to utilise our heuristic processing route, increasing the risk of perceptive errors. 

In summary, heuristics are the intuitive, automatic cognitive shortcut that advance our person perception by saving us time, reducing our cognitive load, and serving as a method of self-protection. However, they are prone to several errors which can have detrimental effects such as stereotyping, potentially resulting in the damaging consequences of the stereotype threat and prejudices. It is only by using our conscious mind to question these heuristic processes that we can overcome errors to make balanced, logical inferences and perceptions of others.


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