Heuristics in the age of the smartphone: how do heuristics help us decide which app to buy from the app markets?

Heuristics in the age of the smartphone: how do heuristics help us decide which app to buy from the app markets?

Louis had just been given a new smartphone for Christmas, he’d wanted a new smartphone for some months now. He charged the phone, setup his contacts and began to browse through the app stores. He searched for useful apps and entertainment apps. Whilst browsing the app store he noted that among the hundreds of apps a small selection of the apps were prioritised by positioning the apps at the top of the app list. Louis wondered some of the apps were displayed in a better position than others. He didn’t give it a second thought and continued to load apps onto his new smartphone.

Smartphone apps are small computer programmes that have become a useful and sometimes important part of life. These small apps have helped to change mobile phones from a basic communication device to a small personal computer that can complete a myriad of functions (e.g., listening to podcasts, searching the internet, playing games). The apps that enable the large variety of functions are primarily available through proprietary online shops such as Google’s Play Store, Apple’s App Store, and Amazon’s App store, these apps can be created by skilled computer programmers. Since the advent of smartphones (mobile phones with the ability to use apps) over a billion smartphone have been sold and 50 billion apps have been downloaded worldwide (ABI Research, 2013).

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The popularity of smartphone apps have lead researchers to investigate how and why we choose to download one app whilst ignoring the vast amount of other apps that available. For example, when searching for a messaging app one must pick one app with the desired attributes from among a vast collection of apps that are all very similar. Some of the aids when choosing an app include graphic rating systems (Gage Kelley et al., 2013) and customer reviews (Poster Felt et al., 2012). Decision-making researchers have found that users (consumers) spend more time reading customers reviews than the privacy permissions, despite the importance of clearly understanding what you ought to allow the app to access on your smartphone (Should you rely allow a game to access your phone call log or photos?) (Porter Felt et al., 2012). Other researchers have revealed that graphic rating systems are considered to be a more reliable source of information and quality of an app than full-text customer reviews (Gage Kelley et al., 2013). Many user prefer to simply look at the number of stars that an app has been given by other users rather than reading customer reviews.

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One exploratory study by researchers at universities in Germany and the United States sought to investigate what decision strategies are used when deciding which app to download from an app store (Dogruel et al. 2015). They recruited 49 smartphone users with experience of the Google Play Store and asked them to browse through a total of 189 apps, after which they chose three apps to download from different categories. The researchers used screen capture software to monitor and record the activities of the participants so that they could observe which decisions were made. The researchers found that half of the selected apps (n=93) were chosen from the default list at the top of the screen, here the participants did not scroll down to look any other apps. In just 1 in 4 cases (approx. 48) apps were selected after viewing at least 10 other apps. The Take-the-first (TtF) heuristic which states that a user simply chooses the first option that they encounter explains about half of the decisions that were made.

So, like Louis if you have recently received a smartphone as a gift or had bought one and are now filling the smartphone with useful and entertaining apps, remember that many of the most popular apps (in the default list) may have simply been chosen by other users because of the Take-the-first heuristic. We like to think that we decide which app to download carefully however heuristics like Take-the-first can explain some of our decisions. As apps become more popular with the advancement of technology the heuristics-and-biases literature can inform us about how we make these decisions, decisions that app store creators can use to their benefit to make greater profit.


How do we make decisions quickly when placing bets in a casino?

How do we make decisions quickly when placing bets in a casino?

Like many tourists, Rebecca and Catherine always wanted to visit Las Vegas. They took in the dazzling sights of the bright lights, enjoyed the stage magic and drifted into one of large casinos. When they walked into the casino they were amazed by the sounds and lights. Catherine had always enjoyed the game of roulette so headed straight to the roulette table. Catherine placed three consecutive bets, losing all three. Watching this Rebecca quietly said to Catherine “Maybe you should try another game, the odds are against you winning.” To this Catherine replied “No, I have lost three times I am overdue a win, I will win soon.”

When we make decisions, we like to think that we make all of our decisions rationally. Casino environments are designed to be one of the most complex environments that we ever encounter, there are colourful, flashing lights, loud machines playing music and people cheering. It is hard to deal with the environment, tune-out and make clear decisions. To deal with complex environments the brain has developed a number of judgement heuristics. Judgement heuristics are mental short cuts that enable us to make quick decisions whilst ignoring part of the decision-making environment. One classic example of a judgement heuristic was given by Catherine above when speaking to Rebecca at the roulette table. The aptly named gambler’s fallacy, as demonstrated above can also be seen in the following classic scenario. Imagine that someone is flipping a coin multiple times, the coin lands head side up three times in a row. Someone watching the coin flipping is asked to guess whether the next coin will land head side up or tail side up. If the person guesses tail side up they are using the gambler’s fallacy, a belief that randomness follows a pattern. Many people believe that for the coin flipping to be truly random the outcome of a sequence of five coin flips must be something like HEADS-TAILS-HEADS-TAILS-HEADS. If an outcome of five flips is HEADS-HEADS-HEADS-HEADS-HEADS then the coin is overdue to land with the tail side up otherwise this is not random. The belief in a pattern of randomness persists in most areas of life.

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In a field study by researchers at the University of Navada 18 hours worth of overhead security camera footage of a roulette table was obtained from a large Reno casino, consisting for 904 bets (Sundali & Croson, 2006). The researchers watched all of the bets and coded the patterns of betting for every gambler that sat down at the table. On an American-style roulette table there are 36 different sections of the roulette wheel, coloured as red or black (European-style roulette has 37 sections). Players can bet on more than one number and colour by placing their chips on the corners or side of each of the numbered squares. If a gambler bets randomly then after the researchers coded each bet there should be a 2.6% chance that a bet would fall on each number. The researchers found that after an outcome of RED-RED-RED gamblers responded with a gambler’s fallacy type logic by betting on BLACK. Like Catherine above and the coin flipping above, the gamblers believed in a representation, or pattern of randomness.

A study by Gal and Baron in 1996 investigated the gambler’s fallacy in a laboratory-based experiment. Gal and Baron examined whether a change in betting strategy was due to boredom by asking participants why they choose to bet in the way that they did. Most of the participants in the Gal and Baron study responded by saying that they were attempting to maximize their earnings by using the gambler’s fallacy-type logic. It would appear that the gambler’s fallacy is not simply caused by boredom.

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Besides gambling at the roulette table other casino games in which heuristics play a major role include the craps table and fruit machines. One prominent heuristic at the craps table is the belief in illusory correlations. When rolling the dice at the craps table gamblers often blow on the dice for luck or roll the dice softly in the belief that a low number will come up, and roll the dice harder when they want a higher number (Griffths. 1994). These gamblers believe that if a number comes up that they did not want then they did not through the dice hard or soft enough.

Cognitive short cuts as heuristics are used in every area of life where decisions need to be made. With respect to gambling, heuristics have been documented in fruit machine users, and at the poker, blackjack, roulette and craps tables. Even when betting on horse or dog races gamblers reliably use these mental short cuts (Terrell, 1998). I have highlighted two of uses of heuristics above, namely the gambler’s fallacy and illusory control. Like Catherine above many people fall for these heuristics and make sub-optimal decisions based on incorrect beliefs. When it comes to gambling, there are two ways to avoid these cognitive traps. If gambling alone take your time to think about the decisions that you want to make. When gambling in a group of with a friend you could listen to the advice of your friend as Catherine should have above.