2014—Gerd Gigerenzer

Photo of Gerd Gigerenzer
Center for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition, Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Gerd Gigerenzer is a world leader in research on decision making. He has studied topics ranging from the history of probability theory in psychology to simple strategies for fast and frugal choices to better communication of risks by doctors. He is the Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin. Professor Gigerenzer’s work has had a strong influence on how individuals and researchers think about making choices in health care, public policy, law, and business.

In his work, Gigerenzer takes a historical perspective, informing his cutting-edge research with a deep appreciation and understanding of the centuries-long threads that tie it back to the thinking of earlier scholars, from Aristotle to Pascal to Darwin. Early on he began developing his own probabilistic models of human decision making, exploring how people are able to make good decisions despite being bounded by uncertainty. This work put him directly at odds with the reigning view in judgment and decision-making research at the time, the “heuristics and biases” view of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which held that people are all too often biased and irrational in their decisions. Gigerenzer argued that simple heuristics—shortcuts or rules of thumb—can often do a very good job of dealing with uncertainty, steering people toward good decisions when used in appropriate settings.

At the Max Planck Institute, Gigerenzer has brought together researchers from a variety of fields, including psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, economics, and biology, to pursue the common goal of uncovering what simple heuristic decision strategies people use effectively, and when they work well or fail. In doing so, he started the systematic study of ecological rationality—the science of how the structure of the mind’s mechanisms fits with, and exploits, the structure of information in the environment. More recently, he has begun to explore how individuals make moral decisions with the use of simple principles that lead to quick judgments. Gigerenzer has also branched out into a variety of new applied directions. He has trained U.S. federal judges, German physicians, educators, and top business managers to make better and faster decisions, and to more clearly understand risks and uncertainties.

His academic books include Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty (Oxford 2008), Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (with Peter Todd and the ABC Research Group; Oxford 1999), Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (with Reinhard Selten, a Nobel Laureate in economics; MIT 2001), and Better Doctors, Better Patients, Better Decisions (with Sir Muir Gray; MIT 2011). His award-winning popular books Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You (Simon & Schuster 2002), Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious (Viking 2007), and Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions (Viking 2014) have been translated into 18 languages. In addition, he has published many scientific papers in leading journals, including Psychological Review, Science, British Medical Journal, and Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Gigerenzer is a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society and the American Psychological Society. He was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Prize for Behavioral Research in 1992, the Communicator Award of the DFG (German Research Foundation) in 2001, and the German Psychology Society’s 2011 prize for distinguished research.