Heuristic Processing

Heuristic Processing Definition

Heuristic processing refers to Heuristic Processingle’s attitudes when their motivation to think about something is low (e.g., when they do not care very much about the outcome of an election) and when their ability to think carefully is constrained (e.g., when they are stressed out or pressed for time). It is a relatively easy and efficient way to make judgments, but it can also lead to mistakes.

Heuristic Processing Background and History

In the 1970s and 1980s, persuasion researchers joined other social psychologists in focusing on the cognitive processes underlying the effects they studied. In other words, they wanted to know not just what variables cause attitudes to change but also why and how attitude change occurs. At first, most major theories of persuasion assumed that attitude change always occurs as a result of careful thought. This suggests that messages evoking positive thoughts about an issue will be persuasive, whereas messages that lead to negative thoughts will be unpersuasive.

In the 1980s, two dual-process models of persuasion were developed: the elaboration likelihood model, developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, and the heuristic-systematic model, developed by Shelly Chaiken. These dual-process models recognized that careful, effortful thinking about issues only occurs when people are both motivated and able to process information in such a systematic way. Otherwise, these theorists reasoned, attitude change will occur based on less meaningful, more efficient ways of thinking about information.

To describe such a way of thinking, Shelly Chaiken looked to another area of social psychology, where Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky had popularized the term heuristic in their studies of biases in human decision making. Here, a heuristic describes a well-learned (and therefore quite efficient) rule of thumb that helps people solve a problem or form a judgment but which leads to biases or errors when applied in the wrong circumstances. In Chaiken’s heuristic-systematic model of persuasion, heuristic processing describes attitude change that occurs based on people’s use of these well-learned decision rules. The distinction made in the heuristic-systematic and elaboration likelihood models between two kinds of information processing (the effortful, reflective, systematic mode and the quick, associative, relatively automatic heuristic mode) has become important in many other areas of social and cognitive psychology.

Importance and Consequences of Heuristic Processing

Heuristic processing can influence attitude change in two major ways. First, when motivation and ability to think about information are both low, heuristic processing directly influences attitude change. In such situations, people tend to depend on heuristic cues (such as the likeability, attractiveness, and expertise of the communicator) in forming their opinions and judgments. This way of thinking about information is often very useful and efficient. For instance, it saves people a lot of time and effort to assume that experts are typically correct, and it allows them to make (often good) decisions about important issues such as whether to take a medicine or what kind of cars are safe to drive. However, experts are not always right, and trusting them can sometimes lead people to make decisions different (and poorer) than the ones they would have made had they considered all the information for themselves. For example, diet fads are frequently endorsed by “experts” but often turn out to be bogus or downright harmful.

The second way in which heuristic processing can influence attitude change is by biasing the direction of the systematic processing that occurs when motivation and ability to think about information are sufficiently high. In other words, these relatively automatic associations people make based on well-learned decision rules can lead them to have certain expectations about the information they will encounter, which can affect how they think about that information. For instance, if Jill learns that her sorority supports a tuition increase to improve the quality of on-campus housing, she may invoke the heuristic “if ingroup, then agree.” If she is motivated and able to consider this issue more carefully, she will probably go on to evaluate arguments for and against the tuition increase. But, her initial expectation (based on heuristic processing) that her sorority’s position is the correct one may bias the way in which she thinks about the arguments presented. She may selectively attend to arguments that confirm her sorority’s position and elaborate on them in ways that increase their persuasiveness (e.g., she might think to herself, “Not only would improved housing make our lives better as current students, but it would also help attract new students to the school”). Meanwhile, she may dismiss arguments against the tuition increase, or she may search more carefully for the flaws that she expects these arguments to have based on her initial use of the ingroup agreement heuristic (“Sure, tuition is already high, but if you can’t afford it, you get a scholarship, so this will only affect people who have enough money to pay anyway”).

To study heuristic processing, persuasion researchers typically present participants with some information about a particular issue (such as whether a university should have comprehensive exams). Researchers can influence participants’ motivation to think about information by manipulating whether the issue is of high or low relevance (e.g., whether the comprehensive exams will be implemented the following year or the following decade). They can influence participants’ ability to think carefully about information by manipulating either the time allotted for the task or the amount of distraction in the environment. They can also manipulate aspects of the message or the person communicating the message. Using such methods, researchers have shown that when motivation and ability to process information are kept low, persuasion depends primarily on heuristic cues. For instance, participants are more persuaded when a communicator is attractive, likeable, and expert, versus when the communicator is not; when there are many arguments in favor of an issue rather than only a few; and when a consensus opinion or a social ingroup favors the issue, versus when it does not. When motivation and ability to process are higher, research shows that a heuristic cue (such as the credibility of the communicator) biases the direction of systematic thinking about a message and the resulting attitude change (so that, e.g., participants who hear a highly credible communicator show more favorable systematic processing of that communicator’s message, and more attitude change in the direction of the message, than do participants who hear a communicator with low credibility).


  1. Axsom, D., Yates, S., & Chaiken, S. (1987). Audience response as a heuristic cue in persuasion. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53, 30—10.
  2. Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-756.
  3. Chen, S., Duckworth, K., & Chaiken, S. (1999). Motivated heuristic and systematic processing. Psychological Inquiry, 10, 44-49.