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Heuristic Decision Making Strategies

  • Teacher(s):   J.Marewski  
  • Course given in: English
  • ECTS Credits: 6 credits
  • Schedule: Autumn Semester 2019-2020, 4.0h. course (weekly average)
  •  sessions
  • site web du cours course website
  • Related programmes:
    Master of Science (MSc) in Management, Orientation Strategy, Organization and Leadership

    Master of Science (MSc) in Management, Orientation Marketing

    Maîtrise universitaire ès Sciences en management, Orientation Behaviour, Economics and Evolution

    Master of Science (MSc) in Management, Orientation Business Analytics



How do humans and other animals make decisions? How should they best make them? Regardless of whether it comes to management, medicine, or other task domains, in the real world available information is often inherently uncertain. Moreover, decision makers typically face information-processing constraints, such as limited memory, computational power, or time.

Strategies for making smart decisions under uncertainty are fast-and-frugal heuristics. Those simple rules of thumb require only limited knowledge and information-processing capacities. Counter-intuitively, relying on heuristics does not require trading off accuracy with effort or other currencies: By exploiting the statistical structure of decision making environments, heuristics can be both accurate and simple.

This course offers an overview of cutting-edge, inter-disciplinary research on heuristic decision making strategies, bringing together human psychology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, business, economics, biology, and other fields.

In addition to covering inter-disciplinary decision making research, the course is designed to introduce students to research activities – be they carried out in academia itself, or in a company setting.

Particularly, the course helps Master students to prepare themselves for writing their Master thesis. Additionally, the course specifically targets PhD students as well as those students who might be interested to pursue doctoral studies and a career in academia later on.

Finally, the course offers learning opportunities to anybody interested in practicing skills such as presenting in front of group, leading a discussion, searching for academic literature, or writing clearly.


Students will become familiar with decision making research, and the fast-and-frugal heuristics research program in particular. Originally developed in the cognitive and decision sciences, fast-and-frugal heuristics have applications in many areas, including in business, economics, medicine, crime, aviation, social psychology, and sports, to name but a few. This course will acquaint students with theoretical and methodological foundations of research on heuristics, introduce different application areas, and allow students to freely focus on one area that is of specific interest to them – be it strategy consulting, management, marketing, business intelligence, financial investment, aspects of human cognition (e.g., memory), or something else.

Since the fast-and-frugal heuristics research program breaks up conventional disciplinary boundaries and makes use of a canon of scientific methods (e.g., computational modeling, mathematical analyses, field studies, laboratory experiments), the course will introduce students to different streams of thinking and scientific inquiry. For instance, in addition to covering decision making in the realm of business and economics, we may touch upon the decision-making aspects of medical diagnosis, focus on human declarative memory as one major determinant of decisional processes, and learn about Chimpanzee social environments. In terms of methodological topics, students will be introduced to statistical notions such as overfitting and the bias-variance-dilemma. They will learn about improper (e.g., unit-weight) linear models and lexicographic strategies, and read about simulations with machine-learning tools and analyses of heuristics in terms of signal detection theory. They will become acquainted with the notion of representative experimental design and other behavioral approaches for studying how decision making processes can nestle into the structure of environments.


Research on heuristics focuses on four interrelated questions. Descriptive: What heuristics do humans and other animals use? Ecological: In what environment does each heuristic yield clever decisions, and when will it fail? Applied: How can decision making be improved, for instance, by changing the heuristics people rely upon or by changing their environment? Methodological: How can the usage and performance of heuristics be studied, for example, in experiments, with computer simulations, or via mathematical analyses?

After an overview on different theories of decision making, we will start out by searching for answers to the descriptive, ecological, and methodological questions. Thereafter, we will cover different areas of applied research. Finally, students will dig deeper into a topic of their own choice. Within the chosen areas of specialization, students will develop a research project. Tangible outcome of this project development phase include formulating a research proposal or, for advanced students (e.g., PhD students), the possibility of doing actual empirical work, to be written up in a project report (e.g., a short journal article draft).

Most sessions of this course are set up as an academic discussion seminar. Prior to each session, we will read selected articles and book chapters and then discuss those together in class. The idea is that course participants acquire knowledge not only by thinking for themselves, but also by reflecting as a group. Those discussion sessions will come accompanied by presentations. As the course progresses, the sessions are meant to inspire students to develop a research project on their own, with later sessions in the course allowing students to get feedback on their projects.

To further facilitate learning processes, participants will be grouped into teams for the duration of the course. The teams are expected to meet in order to prepare the assigned papers together. The teams will also work on group tasks together, such as giving presentations on course topics or leading the class discussions.


References to compulsory readings (scientific journal articles, book chapters) will be given in class by the instructor. Other “compulsory” readings will be chosen by the students themselves, namely in order to develop their research projects.

Students who wish to read up (e.g. already prior to the course) more on heuristics (e.g., in order to find out if they would be interested in taking the course), can find a general introduction here:

Gigerenzer, G., & Gaissmaier, W. (2011). Heuristic decision making. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 451–482.

An overview of practical applications of fast-and-frugal heuristics is available here:

Hafenbrädl, S., Waeger, D., Marewski, J. N., & Gigerenzer, G. (2016). Applied decision making with fast-and-frugal heuristics. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5, 215-231.

Popular books on the fast-and-frugal heuristics research program include:

Gigerenzer, G. (2014). Risk savvy: How to make good decisions. New York: Viking.

Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious. New York: Viking Press.


This course does not come with specific requirements in terms of prior knowledge and skills. As a matter of fact, the course is open to both students who are completely unfamiliar with the cognitive and decision sciences as well as to students who have had ample prior exposure to corresponding research.


First attempt

Without exam (cf. terms)  

The final grade depends on:

- individual verbal participation during class (30%),

- individual written report on a research project (50%), and

- group presentations in class (20%).

Except for the group presentations, all grades are assigned as a function of individual performance. The group presentations are team work. The grade of the team applies to all team members.

The participation grade (30%) hinges on the in-depth preparation of the materials for each session. In order to receive satisfactory evaluations, participants are requested to demonstrate via active in-class verbal participation (i.e., speaking up in the class discussion) that they have read and critically reflected upon on the materials. Also individual presentations contribute to participants’ verbal participation grade.

The individual written research project report (50%) focuses on a decision making topic. Each student can choose her/his own topic. The written report can take two forms. First, the report can come as a concrete research proposal for work that has not yet been done, but that the student would like to conduct. Such research proposals can be set up, for instance, like applications to scientific funding agencies, or like research plans written in a company context. Second, the report can cover actual (e.g., exploratory) research conducted by the student during the course. Such a report can be set up, for example, like a draft for a short scientific article. PhD students who wish to take this course as part of their PhD studies will be required to develop their respective research projects in more depth than Master students. Moreover, PhD students’ research reports will be submitted to stricter evaluation criteria concerning the treatment of the relevant scientific literature (including theory, models, and methodology), (possible) predictions and results, (envisioned) methods, and (envisioned) implications and limitations.

Graded group presentations (20%) are short introductions to the various areas of research covered by this course. Such presentations also include managing clarification and discussion questions from other students.


Without exam (cf. terms)  

In case of a retake, 50% of the grade (individual verbal participation, group presentation) will be retained. A new individual written report on a research project will have to be submitted.

In the event that 50% of the grade already achieved were to be insufficient and writing a new individual report on a research project would not be sufficient to obtain the credits, then also the individual participation grade can be re-assessed by means of an individual oral examination.

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