For me, one of the easiest examples of heuristics that Daniel Kahneman shares in his book Thinking Fast and Slow is the affect heuristic. It is a bias that I know I fall into all the time, and that has led me to buy particular brands of shoes, has influenced how I think about certain foods, and has shaped the way I think about people. In his book Kahenman writes, “The affect heuristic is an instances of substitution, in which the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think About it?).”
The world is a complex and tricky place, and we can only focus a lot of attention in one direction at a time. For a lot of us, that means we are focused on getting kids ready for school, cooking dinner, or trying to keep the house clean. Trying to fully understand the benefits and drawbacks of a social media platform, a new traffic pattern, or how to invest in retirement may seem important, but it can be hard to find the time and mental energy to focus on a complex topic and organize our thoughts in a logical and coherent manner. Nevertheless, we are likely to be presented with situations where we have to make decisions about what level of social media is appropriate for our children, offer comments on new traffic patterns around the water cooler, or finally get around to setting up our retirement plan and deciding what to do with that old 401K from that job we left.
Without having adequate time, energy, and attention to think through these difficult decisions, we have to make choices and are asked to have an opinion on topics we are not very informed about. “The affect heuristic”, Kahneman writes, “simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality. Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.” We substitute the hard question that requires detailed thought for a simple question: do I like social media, did I feel that the new traffic pattern made my commute slower, do I like the way my retirement savings advisor presented a new investment strategy. In each case, we rely on affect, our emotional reaction to something, and make decisions in line with our gut feelings. Of course my kid can use social media, I’m on it, I like it, and I want to see what they are posting. Ugh, that new traffic pattern is awful, what were they thinking putting that utility box where it blocks the view of the intersection. Obviously this is the best investment strategy for me, my advisor was able to explain it well and I liked it when they told me I was making a smart decision.
We don’t notice when we default to the affect heuristic. It is hard to recognize that we have shifted away from making detailed calculations to rely solely on intuitions about how something makes us feel. Rather than admitting that we buy Nike shoes because our favorite basketball player wears them, and we want to be like LeBron, we create a story in our head about the quality of the shoes, the innovative design, and the complementary colors. We fall back on a quick set of factors that gives the impression of a thoughtful decision. In a lot of situations, we probably can’t do much better than the affect heuristic, but it is worth considering if our decisions are really being driven by affect. We might be able to avoid buying things just out of brand loyalty, and we might be a little calmer and reasonable in debates and arguments with friends and family when we realize we are acting on affect and not on reason.