Public opinion concerning social welfare is largely driven by perceptions of recipient deservingness. Extant research has argued that this heuristic is learned from a variety of cultural, institutional, and ideological sources. The present article provides evidence supporting a different view: that the deservingness heuristic is rooted in psychological categories that evolved over the course of human evolution to regulate small-scale exchanges of help. To test predictions made on the basis of this view, a method designed to measure social categorization is embedded in nationally representative surveys conducted in different countries. Across the national- and individual-level differences that extant research has used to explain the heuristic, people categorize welfare recipients on the basis of whether they are lazy or unlucky. This mode of categorization furthermore induces people to think about large-scale welfare politics as its presumed ancestral equivalent: small-scale help giving. The general implications for research on heuristics are discussed.