Cognitive Niches: An Ecological Model of Strategy Selection

Julian N. Marewski, Lael J. Schooler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

165 Scopus citations


How do people select among different strategies to accomplish a given task? Across disciplines, the strategy selection problem represents a major challenge. We propose a quantitative model that predicts how selection emerges through the interplay among strategies, cognitive capacities, and the environment. This interplay carves out for each strategy a cognitive niche, that is, a limited number of situations in which the strategy can be applied, simplifying strategy selection. To illustrate our proposal, we consider selection in the context of 2 theories: the simple heuristics framework and the ACT-R (adaptive control of thought-rational) architecture of cognition. From the heuristics framework, we adopt the thesis that people make decisions by selecting from a repertoire of simple decision strategies that exploit regularities in the environment and draw on cognitive capacities, such as memory and time perception. ACT-R provides a quantitative theory of how these capacities adapt to the environment. In 14 simulations and 10 experiments, we consider the choice between strategies that operate on the accessibility of memories and those that depend on elaborate knowledge about the world. Based on Internet statistics, our model quantitatively predicts people's familiarity with and knowledge of real-world objects, the distributional characteristics of the associated speed of memory retrieval, and the cognitive niches of classic decision strategies, including those of the fluency, recognition, integration, lexicographic, and sequential-sampling heuristics. In doing so, the model specifies when people will be able to apply different strategies and how accurate, fast, and effortless people's decisions will be.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-437
Number of pages45
JournalPsychological review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • ACT-R
  • Decision making
  • Memory
  • Simple heuristics
  • Strategy selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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