Drifting through the web, looking for something else, I landed on John Brockman’s site, The Edge, where I came across a powerful idea and a name I hadn’t encountered before. Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues seem to be working on what may prove to be a very fruitful way of looking at the human mind. Gigerenzer describes their project in the following terms:
“An important future direction in cognitive science is to understand that human minds are embedded in an environment. This is not the usual way that many psychologists, and of course many economists, think about it. There are many psychological theories about what’s in the mind, and there may be all kinds of computations and motives in the mind, but there’s very little ecological thinking about what certain cognitive strategies or emotions do for us, and what problems they solve.”
Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleague Markus Raab go into their theory in more detail in a paper “Intelligence as Smart Heuristics” (In PDF format). I have only one quibble, which doesn’t affect the main thrust of their argument, which is whether some of the things they talk about are algorithms, rather than heuristics.
Stafford Beer, the cybernetician, defined algorithms and heuristics in the following way:
“An algorithm is a technique, or mechanism, which prescribes how to reach a fully specified goal.”
“An heuristic specifies a methods of behaving which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is but not where it is.”
And went on to say:
“The strange thing is that we tend to live our lives by heuristics, and to try and control them by algorithms. Our general endeavour is to survive, yet we specify in detail (?catch the 8.45 train’, ‘ask for a rise’) how to get to this unspecified and unspecifiable goal.”
Many of the examples given by Gigerenzer and Raab, like catching a ball, look more like algorithms to me. It might be interesting if Gigerenzer and his colleagues were to look at some of the heuristics employed by the “lucky” people described Richard Wiseman.