What Is the Affect Heuristic?

Affect Heuristic
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It might not come as much of a surprise to learn that your emotions influence the decisions you make. After all, you might already know that you are more likely to take risks or try new things when you are happy, but less likely to go out on a limb when you're feeling glum. If you've ever gone with your "gut feeling" when faced with a difficult decision, you are probably relying on what is known as the affect heuristic.

What Is the Affect Heuristic?

In psychology, a heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to make decisions quickly and efficiently. In this case it the way you feel (your affect) toward a particular stimulus that influence the decisions you make. Your feelings of the relative "goodness" or badness" of a particular person, object, or activity impacts the decisions that you ultimately make.

So how much your emotions might influence your decision-making and what impact might it have on your life?

  • Researchers have found that when you are in a positive emotional state, you are more likely to perceive an activity as having high benefits and low risks.
  • If your emotional state is negative, on the other hand, you are more inclined to see the activity as being low in benefits and high in risk.

Examples of the Affect Heuristic

For example, imagine a situation in which two children arrive at a local park to play.

One child has spent a lot of time playing on swings at a neighbor's house, so he has nothing but positive feelings when he sees the swing set at the park. He immediately makes the decision that the swings will be fun (high benefit, low risk) and runs to play on the swings.

The other child, however, recently had a negative experience while playing on the swings at a friend's house.

When he sees the swings at the park, he draws on this recent negative memory and decides that the swings are a bad choice (low benefit, high risk).

Much like other heuristics, the affect heuristic has its advantages and disadvantages. While such mental shortcuts allow people to make quick and often reasonably accurate decisions, they can also lead to poor decision-making.

Consider how advertising can sometimes make unhealthy activities such as smoking or eating unhealthy foods seem both positive and appealing. These ads can sometimes influence the emotions of consumers, which can lead to poor health decisions and risky behaviors that can have serious, long-term consequences.

Observations

A 1978 study by Fischoff et al. played a significant role in the study of the affect heuristic. The researchers discovered that judgments of benefits and risks were negatively correlated – the greater the perceived benefit, the lower the perceived risk. At the same time, the more risky behaviors seem, the less the perceived benefits were.

Certain behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking were viewed as high-risk, low-benefit while other things such as antibiotics and vaccines were seen as high-benefit, low-risk.

Researchers have also discovered that emotions can influence the judgments people make about statistical information. In one study, clinicians were presented with recidivism rates that were either presented as probabilities (such as 30%) or frequencies (such as 30 out of 100).

The clinicians rated mental health patients as presenting a higher risk when the numbers were presented as frequencies rather than probabilities. Why? Researchers suggest that presenting the data as frequencies lead to more extreme judgments on the part of clinicians because it creates a mental image of the individual lapsing back into their old behaviors.

Clearly, the affect heuristic can have a powerful influence on decisions both large and small. Perhaps by being aware of your tendency to be swayed by your feelings and emotions, you will be better able to make more objective and clear-minded decisions in the future.

References

Reisberg, D. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slovic, P. Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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