The Affect Heuristic

This was a very thought provoking paper on the rational vs. experiential system thinking (system 1 and system 2 thinking) — the affect heuristic is the centerpiece of the experiential mode of thinking . The authors challenge the notion that some of our thinking errors in probability and frequency judgment might have less to do with availability and more to do with affect. After the abstract I'll highlight some stuff that might interest you. (For the investors among us, there are some noteworthy implications in this paper.)

There are two important ways that our experiential system misguides us: (1) deliberate manipulation of our affective reactions by those who wish to control our behaviors; and (2) the natural limitations of the experiential system and the existence of stimuli in our environment that are simply not amenable to valid affective representatio.

Nicotine is something adults recgonize as addictive but teenagers lack from an experiential point of view. According to the study, the failure of the experiential system to protect many young people from the lure of smoking is nowhere more evident than in the responses to a survey question that asked smokers: “If you had it to do all over again, would you start smoking?” More than 85% of adult smokers and about 80% of young smokers (ages 14–22) answered “no.”(

Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality.

Abstract: Modern theories in cognitive psychology and neuroscience indicate that there are two fundamental ways in which human beings comprehend risk. The “analytic system” uses algorithms and normative rules, such as probability calculus, formal logic, and risk assessment. It is relatively slow, effortful, and requires conscious control. The “experiential system” is intuitive, fast, mostly automatic, and not very accessible to conscious awareness. The experiential system enabled human beings to survive during their long period of evolution and remains today the most natural and most common way to respond to risk. It relies on images and associations, linked by experience to emotion and affect (a feeling that something is good or bad). This system represents risk as a feeling that tells us whether it is safe to walk down this dark street or drink this strange-smelling water. Proponents of formal risk analysis tend to view affective responses to risk as irrational. Current wisdom disputes this view. The rational and the experiential systems operate in parallel and each seems to depend on the other for guidance. Studies have demonstrated that analytic reasoning cannot be effective unless it is guided by emotion and affect. Rational decision making requires proper integration of both modes of thought. Both systems have their advantages, biases, and limitations. Now that we are beginning to understand the complex interplay between emotion and reason that is essential to rational behavior, the challenge before us is to think creatively about what this means for managing risk. On the one hand, how do we apply reason to temper the strong emotions engendered by some risk events? On the other hand, how do we infuse needed “doses of feeling” into circumstances where lack of experience may otherwise leave us too “coldly rational”? This article addresses these important questions.

Some Interesting Points

  • The importance of affect is being recognized increasingly by decision researchers. A strong early proponent of the importance of affect in decision making was Zajonc,(5) who argued that affective reactions to stimuli are often the very first reactions, occurring automatically and subsequently guiding information processing and judgment. If Zajonc is correct, then affective reactions may serve as orienting mechanisms, helping us navigate quickly and efficiently through a complex, uncertain, and sometimes dangerous world.
  • Affective features that become salient in a judgment or decision making process depend on characteristics of the individual and the task as well as the interaction between them. 
  • Using an overall, readily available affective impression can be easier and more efficient than weighing the pros and cons of various reasons or retrieving relevant examples from memory, especially when the required judgment or decision is complex or mental resources are limited. This characterization of a mental short-cut has led us to label the use of affect a “heuristic.”
  • This result implies that people base their judgments of an activity or a technology not only on what they think about it but also on what they feel about it.If they like an activity, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if they dislike it, they tend to judge the opposite—high risk and low benefit.
  • In the realm of finance, Ganzach found support for a model in which analysts base their judgments of risk and return for unfamiliar stocks upon a global attitude. If stocks were perceived as good, they were judged to have high return and low risk, whereas if they were perceived as bad, they were judged to be low in return and high in risk. However, for familiar stocks, perceived risk and return were positively correlated, rather than being driven by a global attitude.
  • Perhaps the biases in probability and frequency judgment that have been attributed to the availability heuristic may be due, at least in part, to affect.
  • Perhaps the biases in probability and frequency judgment that have been attributed to the availability heuristic may be due, at least in part, to affect. Availability may work not only through ease of recall or imaginability, but because remembered and imagined images come tagged with affect.
  • Recent research shows young smokers acting experientially in the sense of giving little or no conscious thought to risks or to the amount of smoking they will be doing. Instead, they are driven by the affective impulses of the moment, enjoying smoking as something new and exciting, a way to have fun with their friends. Even after becoming “regulars,” the great majority of smokers expect to stop soon, regardless of how long they have been smoking, how many cigarettes they currently smoke per day, or how many previous unsuccessful attempts they have experienced. The problem is nicotine addiction, a visceral condition that young smokers recognize by name as a consequence of smoking but do not understand experientially until they are caught in its grip.

Full Study