The Affect Heuristic: What You Feel Is What You Are

23 July, 2020
In this non-stop world we live in, emotions tend to dominate. There's hardly any time to reflect, and to think in a better, calmer, and more balanced way. Our emotional heuristics tell us that most of the decisions are made according to our state of mind.

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 based on 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 based on how they feel at any given moment.

These evaluations based only 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 based on 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 like 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 based on 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 based on 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?

  • Kahneman, Daniel (2015) Pensar rápido, pensar despacio. DeBolsillo
  • Kahneman, Daniel (2005) Heuristics and biases. Cambridge University
  • Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics of intuitive judgment: Extensions and applications (pp. 49–81). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., 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.