Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The program of research now known as the heuristics and biases approach began with a survey of 84 participants at the 1969 meetings of the Mathematical Psychology Society and the American Psychological Association (Tversky & Kahneman, 1971). The respondents, including several authors of statistics texts, were asked realistic questions about the robustness of statistical estimates and the replicability of research results. The article commented tongue-in-heek on the prevalence of a belief that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well: Respondents placed too much confidence in the results of small samples, and their statistical judgments showed little sensitivity to sample size.
The mathematical psychologists who participated in the survey not only should have known better – they did know better. Although their intuitive guesses were off the mark, most of them could have computed the correct answers on the back of an envelope. These sophisticated individuals apparently had access to two distinct approaches for answering statistical questions: one that is spontaneous, intuitive, effortless, and fast; and another that is deliberate, rule-governed, effortful, and slow. The persistence of large biases in the guesses of experts raised doubts about the educability of statistical intuitions. Moreover, it was known that the same biases affect choices in the real world, where researchers commonly select sample sizes that are too small to provide a fair test of their hypotheses (Cohen, 1969, 1992).