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What is the Affect Heuristic?

You’ve been influenced by the affect heuristic anytime you’ve gone with your “gut feeling”. The concept was first introduced in a 1978 paper by Baruch Fischhoff, Paul Slovic, and Sarah Lichtenstein. An affect is a quick “good” or “bad” emotional response to a stimulus, distinct from a “mood”. The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut used when making automatic decisions, whereby we rely heavily upon our emotional state during decision-making, rather than taking the time to consider the long-term consequences of a decision.

Affects can be positive or negative, and this influences your perception of the benefits and risks of a stimulus. Positive emotional responses elicit a high benefit, low risk perception, and negative emotional responses have the opposite effect (Fischhoff et al. 1978).

Affect-based assessments are fast, automated, and often based in experiences (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2002).  The affect heuristic is involuntary and fairly powerful. The immediate emotional response to a stimulus will drastically change how we interpret later events and choose to act. Crucially, stimuli do not universally cause the same emotion; a dog may be viewed very differently by someone who owns a dog than by someone who was bitten by one as a child.

The affect heuristic is seen as a classic example of the dual-system of thinking (Epstein 1994, Kahneman, 2013), whereby we rely on quick, emotional shortcuts rather than time-consuming rational calculations. However, according to Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, our thoughts are constructed from images, which become marked by positive or negative feelings, and influence future perceptions of a stimulus (Damasio, 1996).

We are more likely to be influenced by this heuristic when we don’t have the time or resources to make reflective judgments, such as when we are tired or under time pressure.

Why is it important?

The affect heuristic is an example of the type of immediate emotion-driven decision system that has been crucial to human survival. These heuristics facilitate quick and often accurate decisions without the resource-intense and process of gathering all relevant information and calculating costs and benefits. Negative affects can help increase perceived risks and are useful in communicating health risks to the public.

However, it can lead to poor decision-making. These strong emotional responses can alter our judgments and lead us to make different decisions about the same choice depending on the affect associated with it. Advertisers often taken advantage of this by linking products or services with positive emotions, leading us to engaging in risky and unhealthy behaviours.

Example

One study found that tobacco, alcohol, and food additives are all perceived as high-risk and low-reward items, while X-rays, vaccines and antibiotics are seen as low-risk and high-reward (Fishchhoff, Slovic, and Lichtenstein 1978). The important aspect of this result is that items were always rated as both low-risk and high-reward (or the inverse), even though some items are in fact high-risk/high-reward or low-risk/low-reward. This result occurs because smoking, drunkenness and food additives trigger negative emotional responses, while the other activities trigger positive emotions. Thus, we don’t actually consider the risks and rewards; we automatically choose the more positive option (low risk and high reward) for concepts with positive associations, and do the opposite for those with negative associations. Cigarette advertisements took advantage of the affect heuristic to decrease the perceived risk associated with smoking (Epstein, 1994;Hanson and Kysar, 1999).

Attitudes towards climate change, nuclear power, consumer judgments (the zero price effect), have been shown to be affected by this heuristic (Bostrom, et al. 1994; Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Kahneman and Frederick, 2002)

 

 

 

Bostrom, A.; Morgan, M. G.; Fischhoff, B.; Read, D. (1994). “What Do People Know About Global Climate Change?”. Risk Analysis. 14 (6): 959–970

Damasio, A.R. (October 1996). “The Somatic Marker Hypothesis and the Possible Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 351 (1346): 1413–1420

Epstein, S (August 1994). “Integration of the cognitive and psychodynamic unconscious”. American Psychologist. 49 (8): 709–724.

Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13, 1-17.

Fischhoff, B., Slovic, P., & Lichtenstein, S. (1978). Fault trees: Sensitivity of estimated failure probabilities to problem representation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 4, 330-344

Hanson, J. D.; Kysar, D. A. (1999). “Taking behavioralism seriously: Some evidence of market manipulation”. Harvard Law Review. 112 (7): 1420–1572

Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics of intuitive judgment: Extensions and applications (pp. 49–81). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Slovic, P, Finucane, ML, Peters, E, & MacGregor, DG. (2007) The affect heuristic. European Journal of Operational Research. 2007;177:1333-1352

Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 397-420). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Slovic, P., Monahan, J., & MacGregor, D. M. (2000). Violence risk assessment and risk communication: The effects of using actual cases, providing instructions, and employing probability vs. frequency formats. Law and Human Behavior, 24(3), 271-296.

Further Reading

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