Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making

Richard R. Lau, David P. Redlawsk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

621 Scopus citations


This article challenges the often untested assumption that cognitive "heuristics" improve the decisionmaking abilities of everyday voters. The potential benefits and costs of five common political heuristics are discussed. A new dynamic process-tracing methodology is employed to directly observe the use of these five heuristics by voters in a mock presidential election campaign. We find that cognitive heuristics are at times employed by almost all voters and that they are particularly likely to be used when the choice situation facing voters is complex. A hypothesized interaction between political sophistication and heuristic use on the quality of decision making is obtained across several different experiments, however. As predicted, heuristic use generally increases the probability of a correct vote by political experts but decreases the probability of a correct vote by novices. A situation in which experts can be led astray by heuristic use is also illustrated. Discussion focuses on the implications of these findings for strategies to increase input from under-represented groups into the political process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)951-971
Number of pages21
JournalAmerican journal of political science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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