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.
Substitution Heuristics

Substitution Heuristics

I think heuristics are underrated. We should discuss heuristics as a society way more than we do. We barely acknowledge heuristics, but if we look closely, they are at the heart of many of our decisions, beliefs, and assumptions. They save us a lot of work and help us move through the world pretty smoothly, but are rarely discussed directly or even slightly recognized.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights heuristics in the sense of substitution and explains their role as:

 

“The target question is the assessment you intended to produce.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answered instead.”

 

I have already written about our brain substituting easier questions for harder questions, but the idea of heuristics gives the process a deeper dimension. Kahneman defines a heuristic writing, “The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.”

 

In my own life, and I imagine I am a relatively average case, I have relied on heuristics to help me make a huge number of decisions. I don’t know the best possible investment strategies for my future retirement, but as a heuristic, I know that working with an investment advisor to manage mutual funds and IRAs can be an adequate (even if not perfect) way to ensure I save for the future. I don’t know the healthiest possible foods to eat and what food combinations will maximize my nutrient intake, but as a heuristic I can ensure that I have a colorful plate with varied veggies and not too many sweets to ensure I get enough of the vitamins and nutrients that I need.

 

We have to make a lot of difficult decisions in our lives. Most of us don’t have the time or the ability to compile all the information we need on a given subject to make a fully informed decision, and even if we try, most of us don’t have a reasonable way to sort through contrasting and competing information to determine what is true and what the best course of action would be. Instead, we make substitutions and use heuristics to figure out what we should do. Instead of recognizing that we are using heuristics, however, we ascribe a higher level of confidence and certainty to our decisions than is warranted. What we do, how we live, and what we believe become part of our identity, and we fail to recognize that we are adopting a heuristic to achieve some version of what we believe to be a good life. When pressed to think about it, our mind creates a justification for our decision that doesn’t acknowledge the heuristics in play.

 

In a world where we were quicker to recognize heuristics, we might be able to live with a little distance between ourselves, our decisions, and our beliefs. We could acknowledge that heuristics are driving us, and be more open to change and more willing to be flexible with others. Acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers (that we don’t even have all the necessary information) and are operating on substitution heuristics for complex questions, might help us be less polarized and better connected within our society.
Thoughts on Biases

Thoughts on Biases

“Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Biases are an unavoidable part of our thinking. They can lead to terrible prejudices, habits, and meaningless preferences, but they can also help save us a lot of time, reduce the cognitive demand on our brains, and help us move smoothly through the world. There are too many decision points in our lives and too much information for us to absorb at any one moment for us to not develop shortcuts and heuristics to help our brain think quicker. Quick rules for associative thinking are part of the process of helping us actually exist in the world, and they necessarily create biases.

 

A bad sushi roll might bias us against sushi for the rest of our life. A jump-scare movie experience as a child might bias us toward romcoms and away from horror movies. And being bullied by a beefy kid in elementary school might bias us against muscular dudes and sports. In each instance, a negative experience is associated in our brains with some category of thing (food, entertainment, people) and our memory is helping us move toward things we are more likely to like (or at least less likely to bring us harm). The consequences can be low stakes, like not going to horror movies, but can also be high stakes, like not hiring someone because their physical appearance reminds you of a kid who bullied you as a child.

 

What is important to note here is that biases are natural and to some extent unavoidable. They develop from our experiences and the associations we make as move through life and try to understand the world. They can be defining parts of our personality (I only drink black coffee), they can be incidental pieces of us that we barely notice (my doughnut choice order is buttermilk bar, maple covered anything, chocolate, plain glaze), and they could also be far more dangerous (I have an impulse to think terrible things about anyone with a bumper sticker for a certain political figure – and I have to consciously fight the impulse). Ultimately, we develop biases because it helps us make easier decisions that will match our preferences and minimize our chances of being upset. They are mental shortcuts, saving us from having to make tough decisions and helping us reach conclusions about entire groups of things more quickly.

 

The goal for our society shouldn’t be to completely eliminate all instances of bias in our lives. That would require too much thought and effort for each of us, and we don’t really have the mental capacity to make so many decisions. It is OK if we are biased toward Starbucks rather than having to make a decision about what coffee shop to go to each morning, or which new coffee shop to try in a town we have never visited.

 

What we should do, is work hard to recognize biases that can really impact our lives and have negative consequences. We have to acknowledge that we have negative impulses toward certain kids of people, and we have to think deeply about those biases and work to be aware of how we treat people. Don’t pretend that you move through the world free from problematic biases. Instead, work to see those biases, and work to push against your initial negative reaction and think about ways that you could have more positive interactions with others, and how you can find empathy and shared humanity with them. Allow biases to remain when helpful or insignificant (be biased toward vegetarian take-out for example), but think critically about biases that could have real impacts in your life and in the lives of others.

Archetypes

One of the things we often do in life is take shortcuts to understand the world, our place in the world, and how everything relates. These heuristics allow us to develop mental models of how we think things should interact, helping us build narratives of meaning, moral frameworks, and pathways toward success. The problem thought, if we let these heuristics run amuck without constraining them through self-awareness, is that we begin to cast people, situations, and reality into buckets defined by things we have experienced in the past or seen on TV. In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright encourages us to go beyond archetypes in our relationships to understand others as full people and not as character types from TV shows or stories.

 

In his book he writes, “Don’t try to force a person to be someone they’re not. … Let’s start with self-archetyping. We’re given examples of people to emulate from a young age, an this generally means being presented with role models who represent a certain ideal to our parents, educators, older siblings, or someone else with influence over our growth. The result is that we grow up with a notion about the “correct” way to act, and this carries over into how we behave in the context of a relationship.”

 

In this passage, Wright is encouraging us to understand our selves and not force ourselves to be a character that we believe others want us to be. He is also encouraging us to allow other people to be original versions of themselves, rather than trying to force people into boxes that describe them based on other people that we know. This means that you don’t try to assign roles to yourself and your friends to see who matches who from shows like Friends or the Big Bang Theory, and it means you approach each person as if they are themselves, and not as if they are like a character from a movie or even a person from your past.

 

What we can do when we avoid archetypes is avoid conflicts that arise from hidden expectations of what we want ourselves or another person to be. We can be honest and open about our roles in our relationship, and build a constructive partnership or friendship based on who we truly are as people. Archetypes and shortcuts help us learn lessons about the world and build models, but they are necessarily constrained versions of reality that limit our lives when we enact them in the real world. Avoiding archetypes means that you can be the person that makes you happy, that lives life in your regular resonance, not in the image of someone else. You can allow your spouse to be the spouse that fits with their lifestyle, and makes you happy, rather than the idealized spouse from story or fiction. Driving beyond these narratives of people and roles allows us to interact with people in the world in a much more authentic manner, thought it requires that we take more time to understand those around us.