Affect Heuristic

Affect Heuristic Definition

A judgment is said to be based on a heuristic when a person assesses a specified target attribute (e.g., the risk of an approaching stranger in the street) by substituting a related attribute that comes quickly to mind (e.g., intuitive feelings of fear or anxiety) for a more complex analysis (e.g., detailed reasons or calculations indicating why the risk is high or low).

Affect HeuristicThe affect heuristic describes an aspect of human thinking whereby feelings serve as cues to guide judgments and decisions. In this sense, affect is simply a feeling of goodness or badness, associated with a stimulus object. Affective responses occur rapidly and automatically—note how quickly you sense the feelings associated with the word treasure or the word hate. Reliance on such feelings can be characterized as the affect heuristic.

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Affect Heuristic Examples and Implications

A cartoon by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau shows two rather innocuous-looking strangers approaching each other on a street at night and trying to decide whether it’s safe to acknowledge the other with a greeting. The bubbles above each man’s head give the reader a view of their thought processes as they decide. Both are going through a checklist of risk factors (race, gender, hair length, style of dress, etc.) pertaining to the approaching person and a checklist of risk-mitigating factors (age over 40, carrying Fed Ex package, carrying briefcase, etc.). For both, the risk-mitigating factors outnumber the risk factors 4 to 3, leading the risk to be judged acceptable. The men greet each other.

What is interesting and perhaps amusing about this cartoon is that no one would judge the risk of meeting a stranger on a dark street this way, even if his or her life depended on making the right judgment. Instead this “risk assessment” would be done intuitively. The features of the approaching stranger would trigger positive or negative feelings, of reassurance or alarm. These feelings would be integrated quickly into an overall feeling of safety or concern, and that feeling would motivate behavior—”Good evening,” eye contact or not, perhaps even crossing the street. Reliance on feelings is an example of the affect heuristic.

The cartoon is psychologically important because it acknowledges, in part implicitly, that there are two ways people process information when making judgments and decisions. One way, called the analytic system, is conscious, deliberative, slow, and based on reasons, arguments, and sometimes even formulas or equations (e.g., the risk checklist). The other is fast, intuitive, based on associations, emotions, and feelings (affect); it is automatic and perhaps at an unconscious level. This is called the experiential system.

The experiential system and the analytic system are continually active in one’s brain, cooperating and competing in what has been called “the dance of affect and reason.” Philosophers have been discussing the intricacies of this dance for centuries, often concluding that the analytic system enables one to be “rational,” whereas feelings and emotions “lead one astray.”

Today, this interplay between “the heart and the mind” is actively being studied by social and cognitive psychologists, decision theorists, neuroscientists, and economists. This scientific study has led to some new insights into thinking and rationality. Researchers now see that both systems are rational and necessary for good decisions. The experiential system helped human beings survive the long evolutionary journey during which science wasn’t available to provide guidance. Early humans decided whether it was safe to drink the water in the stream by relying on sensory information, educated by experience. How does it look? Taste? Smell? What happened when I drank it before? In the modern world, people have come to demand more of risk assessment. Scientists now have tools such as analytic chemistry and toxicology to identify microscopic levels of contamination in water and describe what this means for people’s health, now as they drink it and perhaps even decades into the future.

Social psychologists study the dance of affect and reason by creating controlled experiments that show these two systems, experiential and analytic, in action. In one experiment, subjects are recruited to take part in a study of memory. They go into Room 1, where they are given a short (two-digit) or a long (seven-digit) number to memorize. They are asked to walk to Room 2 and report this number. On the way to Room 2, they are offered a choice of a snack, either a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The study’s hypothesis, which was confirmed, was that persons holding the seven-digit number in memory would be less able to rely on analytic thinking which, if used, would provide reasons why the fruit salad was better for them. Instead, they were predicted to rely on the experiential (feeling-based, affective) system, which is less demanding of cognitive resources and this would lead them to choose the appealing chocolate cake. Among persons holding seven digits in memory, 63% chose the cake. Only 41% of those memorizing two digits chose the cake. This study showed that reliance on experiential thinking, relative to analytic thinking, increased as cognitive capacity was reduced (by the memory task). Research is actively under way to determine whether the balance between analytic and experiential thinking is also changed by factors such as time pressure, task complexity, poor health, advanced age, and powerfully affective outcomes and images.

The affect heuristic is an efficient and generally adaptive mechanism that helps individuals navigate easily through many complex decisions in daily life. However, it can also mislead people. For example, advertisers and marketers have learned how to manipulate people into purchasing their products by associating these products with positive images and feelings. Cigarette advertising is a prime example of this.


  • Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 397-420). New York: Cambridge University Press.