Simulation Heuristic

Simulation Heuristic Definition

Simulation HeuristicThe simulation heuristic focuses on what occurs after a person has experienced an event in his or her life. According to the simulation heuristic, a person imagines possible simulations or alternative outcomes to events that he or she encounters. The imagined alternatives, in turn, affect how a person feels about the event in question.

Simulation Heuristic Implications

When faced with questions about events that occur in life, a person may react in many ways. Sometimes a person may choose to put off dealing with the event until later or perhaps even ignore it altogether. However, usually a person eventually comes to confront life events. How a person deals with these situations has great importance for how he or she comes to think about, perceive, and eventually react to the event.

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According to the simulation heuristic, one way that a person confronts a life event is to construct alternatives or simulations to the event in question. This means that when a person encounters some events he or she mentally creates other possible scenarios for how the event could have turned out differently. The simulation heuristic also addresses the emotional impact that imagining the possible outcomes can have for a person. Specifically, imagining better alternative outcomes can make a person feel worse about the event that he or she has experienced. Originally, these mental simulations were compared with computer-based programming models.

In the computer analogy, the simulation model can be constrained so that only predetermined contingencies can occur, or it may be limited to a particular outcome. The output of the simulation is the ease with which the person can generate the simulations. The computer analogy is helpful as an example, but it is lacking in many respects. Consequently, it has been replaced by a more elaborate cognitive processing model of event construction that includes an emotional presence.

Although the simulation heuristic may have influence in many situations such as prediction and probability assessment, its influence is most evident in the study of counterfactual influences. Counterfactuals deal with other possible outcomes to an event. For example, imagine a situation in which two people had missed the school shuttle that only runs on the hour. And because they missed the shuttle, they did not make it to a test in a class in which the professor does not allow makeup exams. One person learns that the shuttle had run on time. The other person learns that the shuttle was running late and left just before they got there. Who would be more upset? Most people would agree that the person who missed the shuttle by only moments would be more upset. The reason for this, according to the simulation heuristic, is that it is easier to generate simulations to the event when the shuttle was missed by only moments. And this construction of mental simulations of the event or counterfactual production is what leads people to feel more regret about events that they encounter.

Research investigating the simulation heuristic has found that people can create simulations to an event in many different ways, and these simulations can have distinct differences in how people perceive the event. For example, a person could create a simulation that is better or a simulation that is worse than the actual event, which, in turn, may have profoundly different effects on how the person perceives the event. Differences such as these have proven important for understanding many areas of research including planning, decision making, and emotional response.


  1. Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93, 136-153.
  2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 201-208). New York: Cambridge University Press.