The Affect Heuristic

Authors: Paul Slovic, Decision Research; Melissa Finucane, Decision Research; Ellen Peters, Decision Research; Donald G. MacGregor, Decision Research

Publication: T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman, (Eds.), Intuitive Judgment: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Decision making, Emotion

Relevance: Affective preferences guide decision making and can be deeply entrenched. The reliance upon emotions to aid decision making can also make people vulnerable to making bad decisions in certain circumstances.

Summary: The paper suggests a theory of an “affect heuristic” in which people attach emotions (affects) to their mental representations of objects and actions. They are then able to make faster, more efficient decisions by referring to these affective tags rather than working through the benefits and consequences of each decision every time they make a choice.

  • Familiarity to an object prompts people to rate it positively.
  • Induced preferences – preferences for otherwise neutral images as a result of subliminal exposure to a smiling face – retained their association even when a second component of the experiment attempted to re-prime the images with frowning faces. The first association, with a smiling face, remained despite the re-priming efforts.
  • The way in which a gamble is framed changes its attractiveness. People can understand probabilities well and use them to determine risk (i.e. winning 7 out of 36 times is not very attractive) but have trouble doing the same with a dollar amount (winning gets $9), unless that amount can be compared to the potential loss (winning gets $9, but losing costs 5 cents).
  • People have trouble evaluating values – potential winnings, amounts of ice cream – unless they can judge them in comparison to another value.

Author Abstract: This chapter introduces a theoretical framework that describes the importance of affect in guiding judgments and decisions. As used here, “affect” means the specific quality of “goodness” or “badness” (i) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) and (ii) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus. Affective responses occur rapidly and automatically – note how quickly you sense the feelings associated with the stimulus word “treasure” or the word “hate.” We shall argue that reliance on such feelings can be characterized as “the affect heuristic.” In this chapter we will trace the development of the affect heuristic across a variety of research paths followed by ourselves and many others. We will also discuss some of the important practical implications resulting from ways that this heuristic impacts our daily lives.

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