Dual process theory posits that we have two cognitive systems: one that is automatic and one that is effortful. It has been suggested that the affect heuristic results from the former.2 In addition to this, the affect heuristic occurs because our affective, or mood, state alters our perception of the risks and benefits of a particular outcome.
Dual system thinking
Dual process theory is a foundational theory in cognitive psychology. It suggests that humans have two distinct cognitive systems for decision-making. The first, System 1, is fast, effortless, automatic, and emotional, while the second, System 2, is slow, effortful, deliberate, and logical.
There is a common misconception that, because it is based in emotion, and not logic, System 1 is maladaptive and always leads to poor decision-making, while System 2, which is rooted in reason, is superior in every way. However, as Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, both systems have their pros and cons.3 System 1 thinking is beneficial in situations when there is no time to deliberate; an immediate decision must be made. This kind of automatic thinking allows us to make the quick decision to hit the brakes when someone cuts us off on the highway or to jump into action to perform the Heimlich maneuver on someone who is choking. In these situations, there is no time to sit around and make a slow, effortful decision.
The affect heuristic results from System 1 thinking. Instead of making a well-reasoned decision, when we rely on the affect heuristic, we make a quick choice based on our emotional state. In some cases, this can be to our benefit, in others it may lead us to make different decisions than we would have, had we taken the time to weigh our options.
Risks and benefits
Another factor that contributes to the affect heuristic is our perception of the risks and benefits of making a certain decision. Our mood state influences risk assessment, which in turn influences our behavior.
When we experience positive affect, we tend to perceive an option as being low risk and having high potential benefits. In contrast, when we experience negative affect, we perceive the option as being high risk and having few potential benefits.4 Naturally, if we feel that selecting a certain option will lead to a big payoff, with little chance of negative consequences, we feel more inclined to make a decision in its favor. Along the same vein of reasoning, if we feel that choosing a certain option is extremely risky and believe that we will not get much out of it, we are unlikely to select it. As such, the impact our emotions have on our perceived risks and benefits of a given outcome can have a significant effect on our decision-making.