Affect Heuristics

More on Affect Heuristics

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.
Affect Heuristics

Affect Heuristics

I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the things I had to accept early on in my studies was that humans are not as rational as we like to believe. We tell ourselves that we are making objective and unbiased judgments about the world to reach the conclusions we find. We tell ourselves that we are listening to smart people who truly understand the issues, policies, and technicalities of policies and science, but studies of voting, of policy preference, and of individual knowledge show that this is not the case.


We are nearing November and in the United States we will be voting for president and other elected officials. Few of us will spend much time investigating the candidates on the ballot in a thorough and rigorous way. Few of us will seek out in-depth and nuanced information about the policies our political leaders support or about referendum questions on the ballot.  But many of us, perhaps the vast majority of us, will have strong views on policies ranging from tech company monopolies, to tariffs, and to public health measures. We will reach unshakable conclusions and find a few snippets of facts to support our views. But this doesn’t mean that we will truly understand any of the issues in a deep and complex manner.


Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow helps us understand what is happening with our voting, and reveals what I didn’t want to believe, but what I was confronted with over and over through academic studies. He writes, “The dominance of conclusions over arguments is most pronounced where emotions are involved. The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world.”


Very few of us have a deep understating of economics, international relations, or public health, but we are good at recognizing what is in our immediate self-interest and who represents the identities that are core to who we are. We know that having someone who reflects our identities and praises those identities will help improve the social standing of our group, and ultimately improve our own social status. By recognizing who our leader is and what is in our individual self-interest to support, we can learn which policy beliefs we should adopt. We look to our leaders, learn what they believe and support, and follow their lead. We memorize a few basic facts, and use that as justification for the beliefs we hold, rather than admit that our beliefs simply follow our emotional desire to align with a leader that we believe will boost our social standing.


It is this affect heuristic that drives much of our political decision making. It helps explain how we can support some policies which don’t seem to immediately benefit us, by looking at the larger group we want to be a part of and trying to increase the social standing of that group, even at a personal cost. The affect heuristic shows that we want a conclusion to be true, because we would benefit from it, and we use motivated reasoning to adopt beliefs that conveniently support our self-interest. There doesn’t need to be any truth to the beliefs, they just need to satisfy our emotional valance and give us a shortcut to making decisions on complex topics.

Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.