What Is the Affect Heuristic? | Example & Definition

The affect heuristic occurs when our current emotional state or mood influences our decisions. Instead of evaluating the situation objectively, we rely on our “gut feelings” and respond according to how we feel. As a result, the affect heuristic can lead to suboptimal decision-making.

Example: Affect heuristic 
You have been applying for jobs for the past few months. Your last application successfully landed you an interview at a big tech company, but you didn’t make it to the second round of interviews.

You were very excited about the opportunity, and now you feel disheartened.

A friend forwards you another job posting for a similar position at a smaller company. You decide not to apply, even though you are qualified. Because of your state of mind, you feel that there is a good chance that you won’t get that job either.

What is the affect heuristic?

The affect heuristic is a type of cognitive bias that plays a role in decision-making. Instead of using objective information, we rely upon our emotions to evaluate a situation. This can also serve as a shortcut to solve a problem quickly. Here, affect can be viewed as:

  •  a feeling state that people experience, such as happiness or sadness.
  •  a quality associated with a stimulus, or anything that can trigger us to act, such as sounds, words, or temperature changes.

When people need to make a choice under time pressure, they are likely to feel the need to be efficient, or to simply go with what seems the best option. This leads them to rely on heuristics or mental shortcuts. The affect heuristic causes us to consult our emotions and feelings when we need to form a judgment but lack the information or time to reflect more deeply.

Example: Affect heuristic in everyday life
You are judging the risk or benefit of going around the city on rollerblades. How you’re feeling about this particular activity influences your decision.

The affect heuristic

  • If you used to skate as a kid and have many positive memories, you might feel that the benefit (fun) outweighs any risks (falling). Therefore, you might be more inclined to try it again.
  • On the other hand, if you fell and broke your arm skating as a kid, you most likely associate skating with danger, and feel that it’s a bad idea.

More specifically, the affect heuristic impacts our decision-making by influencing how we perceive risks and benefits related to an action. In other words, when we like an activity, we tend to judge its risk as low, and its benefit as high.

The opposite is true when we dislike something. Here, we tend to judge its risk as high and its benefit as low. In this way, how we feel about something directs our judgment of risk and benefit. This, in turn, motivates our behavior.

Similarly, our mood can influence our decisions. When we are in a good mood, we tend to be optimistic about decisions and focus more on the benefits. When we are in a bad mood, we focus more on the risks and the perceived lack of benefits related to a decision.

Why does the affect heuristic occur?

The affect heuristic occurs due to emotional or affective reactions to a stimulus. These are often the very first reactions we have. They occur automatically and rapidly, influencing how we process and evaluate information. For example, you can probably sense the different feelings associated with the word “love” as opposed to the word “hate.”

When we subconsciously let these feelings guide our decisions, we rely on the affect heuristic. This is because we perceive reality in two fundamentally different ways or systems. Various names are used to describe them:

  • One is often labeled as intuitive, automatic, and experiential. 
  • The other is labeled as analytical, verbal, and rational. 

While the rational way of comprehending reality relies on logic and evidence, the experiential one relies on feelings we’ve come to associate with certain things. Through the experiential system, we store events or concepts in our minds, “tagging” them with positive or negative feelings. When faced with a decision, we consult our “pool”, containing all the positive and negative tags. These then serve as cues for our judgment.

Although deeper analysis is certainly important in some decision-making contexts, using our emotions is a quicker, easier, and more efficient way to navigate a complex, uncertain, or sometimes even dangerous world.

When is the affect heuristic a problem?

Although the affect heuristic allows us to make decisions quickly and efficiently (similarly to the availability heuristic or anchoring bias), it can also deceive us. There are two important ways that the affect heuristic can lead us astray:

  • One occurs when others try to manipulate our emotions in an attempt to affect or control our behavior. For example, politicians often appeal to fear in order to make the public feel that the country will suffer dire consequences if they aren’t elected or certain policies aren’t implemented.
  • The other results from the natural limitations of the experiential system. For instance, we can’t find the correct answer to a math problem by relying on our feelings. Besides, if it was always enough to follow our intuition, there would be no need for the rational/analytic system of thinking.

Affect heuristic example

The affect heuristic is a possible explanation for a range of purchase decisions, such as buying insurance.

Example: Affect heuristic and insurance
In a study examining how people’s feelings impact their willingness to buy insurance, participants were presented with two scenarios regarding an antique clock. In both scenarios, the value of the clock was the same– the only difference was the participant’s feelings towards it.

The scenarios involved one of the following:

  • An antique clock that no longer works and can’t be repaired. However, it has sentimental value: it was a gift to you from your grandparents on your 5th birthday. You learned how to tell time from it, and have always loved it very much.
  • An antique clock that no longer works and can’t be repaired. It does not have much sentimental value to you. It was a gift from a remote relative on your 5th birthday. You didn’t like it very much then, and you still don’t have any particular feelings towards it now.

Both groups of participants were then asked to indicate the maximum amount they were willing to pay for insurance against loss in a shipment to a new city. In the event of loss, the insurance paid $100 in both cases.

On average, those in the first scenario were willing to pay about twice as much for the shipping insurance as those in the second scenario ($22.24 and $10.51 respectively). This seems to go against rational decision-making, as the clock has no market value. However, it shows how a person’s feelings can influence their choices.

Due to the affect heuristic, how people feel about something drives their judgment. Communicators, such as public relations professionals, know this and can use it to influence our opinions.

Example: Affect heuristic and framing
Communicators often try to manipulate our feelings, swaying our opinions on controversial issues through word choice. One example of this is “nukespeak,” a form of misleading language used to present nuclear energy and weapons in a positive light.

By using terms like “smart bombs” and “peacekeeper missiles” for nuclear weapons and “excursions” for reactor accidents, proponents of nuclear energy downplay the risks of nuclear applications and highlight their benefits. Although not without resistance, they attempt to frame nuclear concepts in neutral or positive ways using this language. As a result, the public attaches a neutral or positive sentiment to the technology, leading to a framing effect.

Under the affect heuristic, when people perceive something, such as a technology, to be highly beneficial, they automatically infer that it’s low risk. This ultimately influences how they feel about it. The next time they are asked to give their opinion on the matter, they are more likely to consult their feelings, rather than carefully examining all the facts.

How to avoid the affect heuristic?

The affect heuristic is a helpful shortcut, but it can also cloud our judgment. Here are a few steps you can take to minimize the negative impact of the affect heuristic:

  • Acknowledge that emotions can influence our decisions, no matter how rational we think we are. This is especially true when we lack the information or time to think things through.
  • Slow down your thinking process if possible. Instead of making a snap judgment, take the time to analyze all the information at hand and consider all the options before reaching your conclusion.
  • Avoid making an important decision when your emotions are running high. Regardless of whether the emotion is positive or negative, try to delay decision-making until you are in a “regular” state of mind.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

What is an example of the affect heuristic in decision-making?

When customers are asked if they want to extend the warranty for a laptop they’ve just bought, few of them seriously think about relevant factors (e.g., the probability that the laptop will be damaged or the likely cost of repair).

Most people rely on the affect heuristic: the more they cherish their new laptop, the more willing they are to pay for an extended warranty.

What is the difference between the affect heuristic and the availability heuristic?

Even though the affect heuristic and the availability heuristic are different, they are closely linked. This is because availability occurs not only through ease of recall or imaginability, but because remembered and imagined images come tagged with affect or emotion.

For example, availability can explain why people overestimate certain highly publicized causes of death like accidents, homicides, or tornadoes and underestimate others, such as diabetes, asthma, or stroke. The highly publicized ones are more emotionally charged and, thus, more likely to receive attention.

In other words, the affect heuristic is essentially a type of availability mechanism in which emotionally charged events quickly spring to mind.

What is affect in psychology?

Affect in psychology is any experience of feeling, emotion, or mood. It is often described as positive or negative. Affect colors how we see the world and how we feel about people, objects, and events.

Because of this, it can also impact our social interactions, behaviors, and judgments. For example, we often make decisions based on our “gut feeling.” When we do this, we rely on what is called the affect heuristic.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, November 03). What Is the Affect Heuristic? | Example & Definition. Scribbr. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/affect-heuristic/

Sources

Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A. S., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1

Hsee, C. K. (2006). The Affection Effect in Insurance Decisions. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 20(2). https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=930041

Skagerlund, K., Forsblad, M., Slovic, P., & Västfjäll, D. (2020). The Affect Heuristic and Risk Perception – Stability Across Elicitation Methods and Individual Cognitive Abilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00970

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.