What Is the Representativeness Heuristic?

The representativeness heuristic affects judgments, but it can lead to errors.

Making a decision based upon representativeness
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When faced with uncertainty while trying to make a decision, people often rely on a mental shortcut known as the representativeness heuristic. While this shortcut can speed up the decision-making process, it can also lead to poor choices and stereotypes.

Take a closer look at what the representativeness heuristic is and how it works.

What Is the Representativeness Heuristic?

When making decisions or judgments, we often use mental shortcuts or "rules of thumb" known as heuristics.

For every decision, we don't always have the time or resources to compare all the information before we make a choice, so we use heuristics to help us reach decisions quickly and efficiently. Sometimes these mental shortcuts can be helpful, but in other cases they can lead to errors or cognitive biases.

The representativeness heuristic is one heuristic that we use when making judgments. In this particular example, we estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object.

An Example of How the Representativeness Heuristic Works

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman during the 1970s. Like other heuristics, making judgments based on representativeness is intended to work as a type of mental shortcut, allowing us to make decisions quickly.

However, it can also lead to errors.

When we make decisions based on representativeness, we may be likely to make more errors byoverestimating the likelihood that something will occur. Just because an event or object is representative does not mean its occurrence is more probable.

Consider the following description:

Sarah loves to listen to New Age music and faithfully reads her horoscope each day. In her spare time, she enjoys aromatherapy and attending a local spirituality group.

Based on the description above, is Sarah more likely to be a school teacher or a holistic healer? Many people would identify her as a holistic healer based on representativeness. She fits in with our existing ideas of how a holistic healer might behave. In reality, it is far more likely that Sarah is actually a school teacher based purely on probability. School teachers are far more common than holistic healers.

Classic Research on the Representativeness Heuristic

In their classic experiment, Tversky and Kahneman presented the following description to a group of participants:

"Tom W. is of high intelligence, although lacking in true creativity. He has a need for order and clarity, and for neat and tidy systems in which every detail finds its appropriate place. His writing is rather dull and mechanical, occasionally enlivened by somewhat corny puns and by flashes of imagination of the sci-fi type. He has a strong drive for competence. He seems to feel little sympathy for other people and does not enjoy interacting with others. Self-centered, he nonetheless has a deep moral sense."

The participants were then divided into three separate groups and each group was given a different task.

  • The first group was asked how similar Tom was to one of nine different college majors. The majority of participants in this group believed Tom was most similar to an engineering major and least similar to a social science major.
  • Participants in the second group were asked to rate the probability that Tom was one of the nine majors. The probabilities given by the participants in the second group were very similar to the responses given by those in the first group.
  • In the third group, participants were asked a question unrelated to Tom's description. They were asked to estimate what percentage of first-year graduate students were in each of the nine majors.

    What the researchers found was that people were highly likely to believe that Tom was an engineering major, despite the fact that there was a relatively small number of engineering students at the school where the study was conducted. People were likely to believe that Tom was an engineering major based on representativeness, ignoring other pertinent information such as the small number of engineering students. Tom's description matched with what they believed was a good representation of an engineering major, so the representativeness heuristic led them to make a judgment about what major he was likely pursuing.

    The Representativeness Heuristic In the Real-World

    The representativeness heuristic can play a major role in many real-life decisions and judgments. Consider, for example, how members of a jury might determine a defendant's guilt or innocence. If the accused looks like what the jurors think a criminal should look like, with a menacing presence, scruffy face, and angry eyes, they might be more likely to perceive that individual as guilty of the crime of which he or she is accused.

    Assessments of guilt can also depend upon how well the crime represents a certain crime category. For example, a person accused of abducting a child for ransom may be more likely to be viewed as guilty as someone accused of kidnapping an adult for no ransom. While both crimes represent kidnapping, the first is a more representative example because it fits better with what most people think of when they hear the word 'kidnapping.'

    This heuristic can also play a role in the assessments we make about other people. We tend to develop ideas about how people in certain roles should behave. A farmer, for example, might be seen as hard-working, outdoorsy, and tough. A librarian, on the other hand, might be viewed as being quiet, organized, and reserved. How well an individual fits into these representations of each profession affects our view of how probable it is they hold one of these positions.

    In their classic 1974 book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Tversky and Kahneman describe one example of how the representativeness heuristic can influence our perceptions of other people. They describe an individual who is seen as shy, withdrawn, helpful, but not necessarily concerned with the world of reality. This person is also described as tidy, meek, and detailed with a passion for order and structure.

    If you had to make a judgment about which profession this individual likely holds, which one would you select: farmer, salesman, airline pilot, librarian, or physician?

    "In the representativeness heuristic, the probability that Steve is a librarian, for example, is assessed by the degree to which his is representative of, or similar to, the stereotype of a librarian," Tversky and Kahneman explain.

    A Word From Verywell

    The representativeness heuristic is just one type of mental shortcut that allows us to make decisions quickly in the face of uncertainty. While this can lead to quick thinking, it can also lead us to ignore factors that also play a role in shaping events. The next time you are trying to make a decision, consider the way in which the representative heuristic might play a role in your thinking.

    Sources:

    Baumeister, RF & Bushman, B. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Wadworth, Cengage Learning; 2014.

    Bernstein, D. Essentials of Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2014.

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