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Heuristic Decision Making Strategies

  • Teacher(s):  
  • Course given in: English
  • ECTS Credits:
  • Schedule: Autumn Semester 2021-2022, 4.0h. course (weekly average)
      WARNING :   this is an old version of the syllabus, old versions contain   OBSOLETE   data.
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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.

Target audiences:

  • Master students who wish to discover the world of research, be they carried out in academia itself, or in a company setting, or
  • who might be interested to pursue doctoral studies and a career in academia later on, or
  • who wish to prepare themselves for writing their Master thesis.
  • PhD students who wish to take this course as part of their PhD studies.
  • Finally, the course offers learning opportunities to anyone interested in creatively developing her or his research ideas, practicing skills such as presenting in front of group, leading a discussion, searching for academic literature, or writing clearly.


Originally developed in the cognitive and decision sciences, today fast-and-frugal heuristics have applications in many areas. 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 application area that is of specific interest to them – be it in strategy consulting, management, marketing, business intelligence, data science, financial investment, human cognition (e.g., memory), social psychology (e.g., obedience to authority), biological research (e.g., Chimpanzee memory), or something else.


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).

The course is divided into two parts:

1. 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 participants acquire knowledge not only by thinking for themselves, but also by reflecting as a group.

2. Developing each student’s own research project: Students will discuss their project ideas, get feedback from the class and the instructor, and work on their project.


To further facilitate learning processes, participants will be grouped into teams. The teams will prepare the assigned papers together, give joint presentations, and lead 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.

***Because of the health evolution related to COVID-19, the study plans may be adapted during the semester.***


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 (45%), and
  • presentations in class (25%).

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 (45%) 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 presentations (25%) 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. Master students deliver the presentations in groups, as team work, with the grade of the team applying to all group members. Except for those presentation grades, all other grades are assigned as a function of individual performance for Master students. PhD students who wish to take this course as part of their PhD studies will be required to deliver their presentations individually and they will receive an individual grade for their presentations.


Without exam (cf. terms)  

In case of a retake, 55% of the grade (individual verbal participation, presentation) will be retained. The individual essay submitted initially can be improved or the student can start over by writing a new essay.


In the event that 55% of the grade already achieved were to be insufficient and writing a new or revised individual report on a research project would not be sufficient to obtain the credits, then (a) also the individual participation grade can be re-assessed by means of an individual oral examination. In addition, (b) the presentation grade can be re-assessed by an individual presentation given to the instructor; the grade of that presentation then only applies to the student who decided to take the retake.

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