The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making

The Affect Heuristic: What You Feel Is What You Are

The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making

The affect heuristic tells us that emotions determine a large part of your thoughts and, consequently, your decision-making. This is quite relevant, for example, in the way you eat, your buying habits, and in the way you react to life’s daily difficulties when there isn’t always enough time to reflect or make more conscious decisions.

In this non-stop world, decisions emotions govern a big part of behavior. We’d all undoubtedly love to have more time to filter and process a lot of the information we receive. It would be great to be able to stop the hands of time and appreciate everything that surrounds us in a more relaxed way.

However, this isn’t always possible. That’s why you often give answers, exhibit behaviors, and make choices in a matter of seconds, without being able to analyze and reflect. Specialists in the subject, such as Daniel Kahneman, cognitive psychologist, Nobel Prize winner, and expert in decision-making, have pointed out something interesting.

When we think fast, we often don’t think well. There’s a simple reason for this. It’s because we often don’t feel too good about ourselves and our state of mind isn’t always the most conducive to decision-making. After all, people can’t choose how they feel. Therefore, when more complex emotions take over, things start to get more complicated.

The affect heuristic: what is it?

The affect heuristic reminds us that the world of emotions is more powerful than we may have first believed. In fact, neuroscientists aren’t wrong when they point out that human beings are, above all, emotional creatures who learned to think one day.

Antonio Damasio, a cognitive neurobiologist, renowned for his work as a populariser, explains something interesting in his book The Strange Order of Things.  He explains that emotions – which we can understand as somatic markers – influence a large part of our reasoning.

We sometimes take for granted that “by controlling thought we’ll dominate our emotions”. However,  things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

The affect heuristic: quick responses to everyday needs

A heuristic is a shortcut. It’s a strategy we use to solve a specific problem as quickly and simply as possible. Thus, the affect heuristic is a response and choice that human beings make unconsciously how they feel at any given moment.

These evaluations ly on emotions (not reflection) are quick and automatic. But does this mean that every decision we make with this heuristic is wrong? The answer is “no”. As Slovic, Finucane, Peters, and MacGregor (2002) explain, the affect heuristic is also our experiences.

These are simple examples:

  • When I have a bad day at work, I go shopping. I do this because I know that it’s made me feel good on other occasions, and I that feeling. However, this implies a risk: that I’ll end up buying things that I don’t need.
  • I’m a recruitment technician at a company. I have to choose a candidate among all those I’ve interviewed. I’m going to choose the one who gives me the most confidence, regardless of their training and experience, because, on other occasions, I’ve had good results using this method.

Studies, such as those conducted by Dr. Paul Slovic from the University of Oregon, show that this type of judgment the affect heuristic occurs when people don’t have time to reflect or when they’re not feeling good about things and can’t think clearly and in a more reflexive way.

What if I make all my decisions using the affect heuristic?

The affect heuristic shows us that this type of “mental shortcut” governs a large part of your decision-making, whether big or small. Sometimes, without a doubt, you can make wise decisions your first impulses, or by that somatic imprint, as Antonio Damasio called it.

However, when you act in an automatic and purely emotional way, you can harm yourself and develop negative attitudes. You could, for example, develop an eating disorder, addictive behavior patterns, or simply make a decision that you end up later regretting.

However, in order to avoid (or at least control) this type of behavior, it isn’t simply a matter of completely excluding the emotional side of your mind. People are basically emotions and, therefore, you shouldn’t separate them. You must understand them, manage them, integrate them, and control them.

Dr. Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that you should seek slower and more deliberative thinking, where you aren’t always guided by your first impulses. Balancing your emotions with logic, and letting reflection permeate your feelings, will undoubtedly help you to make more thoughtful and even successful decisions. Why not give it a try?

It might interest you…


Behind the Mind: Affect Heuristic

The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making

The way we feel at any given time affects the decisions we make — whether a decision is as trivial as, “I’m going to have oatmeal for breakfast,” or as significant as, “I’m going to opt for an epidural during labor.” 

In the case of the first decision, waking up in a happy, low-stress mood can prompt a person to reach for a bag of rolled oats in the pantry rather than take a spin through a drive-through for donuts. 

In the case of the second decision, a woman may write an extensive birth plan to opt certain medical interventions during childbirth months before her baby is due. But after she’s labored for hours, she may opt for medication as fear, pain, and anxiety build.

Behavioral psychologists characterize these automatic emotion-driven choices as the affect heuristic.

The Affect Heuristic

  • Affect: an automatic “good” or “bad” emotional response to a stimulus
  • Heuristic: a mental shortcut that allows quick decision making and problem solving

The affect heuristic allows us to make decisions in the moment without conducting extensive research or weighing pros and cons. While this type of decision making is not as thoughtful or careful as other forms of decision making, it’s critical to our survival.

Because emotions influence us in the moment, it’s hard to predict future behavior.

The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

Economist and psychologist George Loewenstein coined the phrase hot-cold empathy gap to explain how people’s current emotional states impact their feelings and decisions. As humans, we experience hot states and cold states. 

Hot States

  • Someone feels high-energy emotions, such as anger or fear
  • The person tends to value short-term goals over long-term goals

According to Loewenstein, people in hot states also tend to:

  • “Underappreciate the extent to which their preferences and behavioral inclinations are influenced by their affective state.”
  • “Believe that they are behaving more dispassionately than they actually are.”
  • “Overestimate the stability of their own current preferences.”

Cold States

  • Someone feels low-energy emotions, such as calmness or happiness
  • The person tends to value long-term goals over short-term goals

According to Loewenstein, people in cold states also tend to:

  • “Underestimate the motivational force of their own future hot states.”
  • “Fail to take measures to avoid situations that will induce [hot] states or to prepare to deal with those that are inevitable.”

The hot-cold empathy gap refers to the way we often fail to accurately predict our future behavior and preferences. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, physical pain – and any other feelings – impact the state we’re in.

Imagine, for example, you take a trip to the grocery store on an empty stomach. When transferring the contents of your cart to the checkout conveyor belt, you  notice some (or many) unnecessary items in it. In this scenario, hunger drove you  down the cookie aisle and persuaded you to overbuy.

Hot-cold empathy gaps play an important role in healthcare decision making.

Our inability to predict how hot or cold states impact our behavior creates an empathy disconnect. Healthcare practitioners and patients often occupy different emotional states, which makes it hard for them to relate to one another.

Furthermore, patients must often make medical decisions in a state of anxiety, fear, pain, or discomfort — all of which can influence their behavior in the moment.

For that reason, patients may make long-term decisions on the basis of current feelings. 

Loewenstein’s own research, albeit a bit dated, suggests hot-cold empathy gaps influence healthy people to overexpose themselves to certain health risks. For example, a doctor may deliver adverse health news to a patient, which creates a hot-cold empathy gap whereby the patient makes a long-term decision on the basis of her current — often temporary — feelings. 

Behavioral psychology helps us understand our clients’ customers, patients, and products.

To be empathetic, you need to understand what a person’s emotional state will be in a specific moment —  such as when they’re purchasing a specific product — and put yourself in that state too. 

At Brado, we recognize the mental shortcuts humans take. We don’t assume a person will act in a certain way without taking their emotional state into account. And we understand the unseen variables that impact behavior.

Thus, we can design better, more informed questions to ask your customers.

Those questions provide our clients with more accurate information and recommendations to help them attract and communicate with the people who most need their products, services, and treatments.

In this video, Brado’s behavioral science lead Catrina Salama breaks down the affect heuristic, hot and cold states, and how emotions influence decision making. By understanding the affect heuristic, we can help you make more meaningful, effective connections with your audience.


Affect Heuristic

The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making

A judgment is said to be 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).

The 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.

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 reasons, arguments, and sometimes even formulas or equations (e.g., the risk checklist).

The other is fast, intuitive, 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.


Bias Eraser #6: Affect Heuristic Bias

The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making

Imagine this scenario. You’ve been preparing for weeks to interview for a sales role at your dream company. You’ve scoured the internet for advice on answering the questions they might ask.

You’ve studied their leadership model and organizational values in-depth. And you’ve even tried out their product so you can describe how you would sell it.

You have your call with the hiring sales manager, and he just doesn’t seem to be all that engaged in the conversation. You know you nailed the interview, but something felt off.

Two days later, your heart is broken when you receive a notice from the recruiter. They are going to pass. You ask for more feedback, but all you learn is that “you just weren’t a good fit compared to other sales candidates.” Now your dreams are shattered! What went wrong?

Opportunities Lost to the Affect Heuristic

Could it be that your hopes have been quashed simply because the hiring manager was having a bad day? Did the company just miss out on hiring a person with a diverse background who could have sold the product to an entirely new client base? It is absolutely possible, and as unfair as it seems, you would be one of many who have lost to an unconscious bias known as the Affect Heuristic.

What is the Affect Heuristic Bias?

Heuristics are a type of shortcut that our brains use to make decisions with minimal effort. They are about efficiency. While they help us make judgments or solve problems more easily, they do so at the cost of accuracy.

Affect refers to emotions, feelings, or mood. So the Affect Heuristic occurs when emotions and mood heavily influence mental shortcuts. Research shows that when people are in a better mood, they tend to be optimistic about decisions. But when they are in a negative state of mind, they focus more on risks and the perceived lack of benefits related to a decision.

How does the Affect Heuristic Impact Hiring? 

In the hiring process, the Affect Heuristic can lead people to make biased decisions about the candidate they are interviewing due to the emotions they are feeling during the interaction.

Examples of Affect Heuristic Bias

This might mean that a well-qualified sales candidate gets overlooked, because the interviewer is in a bad mood, focused on the risks of the potential hire and not their positive potential. Conversely, a poor candidate with zero sales potential gets a second look, because the interviewer misses the risk signs when they are having a good day.

The Affect Heuristic is much more than having a good or bad day. Any emotion can create biased decision-making, including perceptions of the candidate’s name, favorite sports team, or voice.

Think about how many little things affect human emotion throughout the day and how widespread this bias might be.

If a candidate shares your ex’s first name, then you might be unfairly finding faults, while a poster of your favorite football team in the Zoom call background might have you singing another candidate’s praises.

What Can We Do About the Affect Heuristic?

Organizations that are interested in Diversity and Equity should pay close attention to how this bias might unconsciously lead to substandard talent decisions. Today, companies spend more energy, time, and effort to ensure a fair and equitable process, only to have their good intentions uprooted by someone’s bad day.

As Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google puts it, “a diverse mix of voices leads to a better discussion, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.” Shouldn’t your company have that competitive advantage, too?

How to Reduce Affect Heuristic Bias

Hiring a human is a very human process. We can’t avoid the reality that most interactions between people involve emotion. The way to erase bias is to create systems that ensure the human emotions you experience do not unduly impact decision-making. Two tried and true methods to reducing bias are:

  1. Screening resumes later.

    While the Affect Heuristic examples in this article focus on the interview, emotions affect all types of decision-making including resume screening. By putting the resume review a little later in the hiring process, we delay any emotionally-based bias from sneaking in too early.

  2. Deploying a structured interview process.

    Structured interviews are a method of providing all candidates with identical questions. In reference to the Affect Heuristic, they provide an objective mechanism for scoring candidate responses.

    Even if someone is having that bad day, a structured interview system improves fairness in evaluating each candidate on their potential instead of external factors irrelevant to future job performance.

How We Help Erase the Affect Heuristic Bias

Another strategy for erasing Affect Heuristic bias involves gaining insight into candidates to counterbalance our gut, intuition, and emotions. This approach uses a scientific assessment process early in the hiring process. A talent intelligence system PerceptionPredict facilitates completely objective talent assessment.

Candidates advance because of their probability of success in the job and not because bad timing or something random about them triggered the wrong emotion.

Further, scientific assessments provide you with data to use alongside your own decision-making, presenting a learning opportunity about how your own bias may be clouding your judgment. It will help you know if a sales candidate really is great or whether something else is misleading you towards that conclusion.

Data Over Emotion

When a person seems unqualified, but the scientific data doesn’t agree, it gives us a chance to question assumptions and challenge conclusions. In this way, objective assessment data helps evaluate success without human bias and serves to build awareness of our own biased tendencies so that we can work towards erasing them.

Organizations that value diversity, equity, and inclusion have an opportunity to build best practices before employees ever join their companies. For more information about erasing bias from your hiring and recruitment processes, check out LinkedIn’s Diversity Recruiting Training, or try out this Podcast. I’m also here to help!

We know you’re as passionate as we are about making the business world a better place by elevating superior talent and superior organizations. Book a demo to learn more about Perception Predict, and let us give you a hand in reaching the individuals who will boost your business.


Bias in the Spotlight: affect heuristic

The Affect Heuristic and Decision Making
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The affect heuristic describes when someone makes a decision their emotions and how they feel about something – a System 1 response and decision-making shortcut – rather than any logical or seemingly ‘rational’ reasoning.

But why do people do this?

The affect heuristic is a type of mental short cut for decision-making and is related to cognitive ease.

Choosing something you or find most intuitively appealing is easy and requires less mental effort than weighing up more objective information.

Therefore, we often make decisions emotions such as disgust, sadness, joy or plain desire; going with our gut feeling (System 1) rather than using our System 2 judgement.

Interestingly, this heuristic is a type ofevolutionary response; we are wired to react our emotions, drawing onemotional images and narratives to help us to estimate risk and benefitquickly.

It’snot just our emotional response to something that canaffect our decision-making; we are subject to a broader set of emotional sources. In a recent study, Jennifer Lerner – apsychologist at Harvard University – and her colleagues categorised five different sources forhow our emotions might feed into a decision: 

  1. Baseline personality: Characteristicsof the decision maker that create a baseline level of emotions
  2. Emotional response: Ourcurrent feelings about characteristics of each option that influence ourevaluation (e.g. happiness)
  3. Future emotions: Predicted emotions fromoutcomes that have an anticipatory influence (e.g. fear)
  4. Emotions arising from the decision-making process: Theprocess of contemplating a decision can generate emotions (e.g. warmthor frustration)
  5. In-context emotional state: Incidentalemotions from unrelated factors or preceding events (e.g. anger)

Affect Heuristic Illustrated

Manyof these fivesources feature incurrent applications of the affect heuristic around us.

For example, Christmasadverts, such as those by John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, typically leverage morethan just one source of emotional decision-making; relying on an emotionalresponse (source 2), emotions arising from the decision process (source 4) andpossibly even predicted future emotions (source 3) – due to the anticipation feltduring the Christmas period!

Image from Greenpeace Canada & Rethink campaign addressing the global plastic problem

Perhapsone of the most topical uses of affect bias recently has been to increaseawareness and action to stop the ubiquitous use of palm oil in food products.

Iceland’s controversial anti-palm oil festive advertis one example, similarly this example from the Rainforest ActionNetwork is another; pulling at heartstrings as an orangutan and a young deafgirl called Lena get to know each other online. Lena finds out that herfavourite food, peanut butter, contains palm oil.

When Strawberry the orangutantells her sadly “your food is destroying my home” it’s almost impossible not tofeel empathy and be more driven to avoid palm oil products.

Simplevisual examples can be equally powerful. Take Greenpeace’s recent campaignagainst plastic straws; any creature with an innocent ‘cute factor’ will easilydraw an emotional response.

So, what does this all mean?

Inmarket research, it is valuable to understand exactly how consumers are makinga decision or a choice. Traditionally, research methodologies have been basedon rational approaches. For example, asking the consumer directly why theyprefer one product over another and accepting their answer at face value.

Butwhen consumers are being influenced by subconscious biases and heuristics, itis important to make sure methods are also capturing behaviours that may seem‘irrational’. New techniques self-ethnographies, behavioural immersions,and conjoint analysis all help us to dig further into the mind of the consumer.

Wheninvestigating affect bias in particular, we might want to know whether people areresponding to their emotional reactions and feelings or are they weighing upmore objective inputs when considering a purchase.

For marketers, whilst itmight feel intuitive to base campaigns around emotional stories and characters,it’s useful to understand the scientific basis for the approach – to reveal whatexactly is going on under the bonnet!

NEXT IN THE SERIES: Every three weeks The Behavioural Architects will putanother cognitive bias or behavioural economics concept under the spotlight.Our next article features Paradox of choice.

System 1 & 2
Optimism bias
Availability bias
Inattentional blindness
Change blindness
Confirmation Bias
Loss aversion
Hot cold empathy gaps
Social norms part 1
Social norms part 2
Commitment bias


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