Affect Heuristic: How Do I Feel About It?

By The Hotspex Behavioural Science Team

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The Hotspex Behavioural Science Team

Chaim Kuhnreich, Kaylee Boulton, Maria Ayala


In our last Practical Behavioral Scientist Segment, we talked about how the availability heuristic produces a bias in our judgment by perceiving the items which are more easily recalled as more common. Now, the question is - How is an item more easily recalled?

Imagine you go to the store and see a product that says it is made or prepared in Canada, what does this bring to mind for you? Here, “affect heuristic” comes into play. Chances are you start to think about locally made products and the positive benefits that come along with them. The affect heuristic is defined as our tendency to rely on our general perception of an item’s goodness or badness when making decisions rather than an effortful weighting of the costs and benefits.

Affect heuristic uses readily available impressions to inform your judgments or decisions. Affect merely substitutes the complex question of “what do I think about a product” with an easier one, “how do I feel about it?”. This leads to bias in the decision-making process. Affect heuristic impacts judgments by skewing the perceptions of risks and benefits. Researchers have found an inverse relationship between the perceived risk and perceived benefit of an item. Indeed, this relationship has been found across various activities and technologies such as food preservatives, pesticides, and solar power. This means when people judge risks as low; they perceive benefits as higher and vice-versa. In a time crunch, this relationship was strengthened. Researchers also found that the perception of risks and benefits can be altered by providing additional information about an item. For example, when people were given additional information on the benefits of nuclear power, the emotional appeal (or affect) of these items increased correspondingly. Despite the fact that they are not given any information about the risks of nuclear power, they perceive fewer risks.

How Can Brands Leverage Affect Heuristic?

The term “availability heuristic” was coined in 1973 by Nobel prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They conducted an experiment called ‘Fame, Frequency and Recall’ in which they read two lists of famous people to their participants. The first list consisted of uber-famous male celebrities, and the second list had less famous female celebrities. Unsurprisingly, participants recalled more famous celebrities than those who were less famous. However, they also judged the frequency of the famous class celebrities to be much higher, even though the list of less famous celebrities had more names. Succinctly, things that come to mind more easily are considered more common. The same psychologists conducted the Judgement of Word Frequency Experiment. They asked participants whether the letter ‘R’ is more likely to appear in the first or third places of a word. Although the number of words with the letter ‘R’ in third place disproportionately outnumbered those with ‘R’s in the first position, most participants misjudged this because the letter ‘R’ at first position was retrieved more easily.

In the modern era, the availability bias is perceived as how singular, memorable instances influence decisions. The availability heuristic has been found to be automatic; once experienced, it affects human judgment even if it is further discredited.

In the retail context, large price discounts, frequently aligned with the brand identity of many supermarkets, have been shown to influence where consumers find it attractive to shop. An easily recalled super-low price on a jug of detergent can serve as a cue to remind the consumer that the store sells many more items at that great price point. This heuristic can have a big impact if people can easily recall large price rollbacks, such as those offered by stores like Walmart or No Frills.

What Can Brands Do?

Affect heuristic is particularly important when you are introducing new products to the market. The riskiness of innovation is, in fact, one of the major factors that influence the decisions of innovation adoption. In a 2015 study, researchers gave their participants affective evaluations about an innovation; for instance, they informed participants that the previous cohort loved their product. The findings demonstrated that participants who heard good reviews about that product perceived more benefits and fewer risks.

1. Using Testimonials: Brands can use testimonials to attract more customers. Marketers should align their product with the “affect heuristic” by providing some strategic testimonials at the product's launch. This makes people think about the benefits of the product rather than the risks.

2. Giving Additional Information: Marketers should provide customers with additional information about the benefits of the product. This will induce a “positive affect” and reduce the perception of risks.

While thinking of product innovation, you must take into account emotions and the affect heuristic. People usually rely on their emotions in a time crunch, and brands should capitalize on that fact. Customer research is dominated by methodologies involving surveys and questionnaires, but we know that most cognitive processing is not always explicit; rather, it is something that we are not always aware of.

Hotspex: Revolutionizing Brand-Building

At Hotspex, we provide complementary insights to explicit consumer behavior by looking at more implicit, emotional information. We reveal what emotions your brand and products elicit using our Emotional Measurement Platform. Our Implicit toolkit helps us systematically determine what non-conscious associations consumers experience from your brand. For example, Apple revealed strong core and robust associations to positive attributes on our Emotional Measurement Platform. Apple’s strong positive brand image and its focus on quality, durability, and usability minimizes the perceived risks of innovation and encourages customers to buy their products. So, even if their product is expensive, people who evaluate Apple positively will buy the product without thinking about individual risks and benefits.


To conclude, the affect heuristic uses readily available emotions to inform your judgment. Brands can use affect heuristic by thinking about the emotions their product/brand elicits and which non-conscious associations customers have with their brand. At Hotspex, we can help you with both these things using our unique methodologies.

Sources: Finucane, M.L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P. and Johnson, S.M. (2000), The Affect Heuristic in Judgments of Risks and Benefits. J. Behav. Decis. Making, 13: 1-17.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

King, J., & Slovic, P. (2014), The affect heuristic in early judgments of product innovations, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 13; pages 411– 428.

Sheth JN. 1981. Psychology of Innovation Resistance: The Less Developed Concept (LDC) in Diffusion Research. In Sheth JN (ed). Research in Marketing. JAI Press: Greenwich, CT; 273–282.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2007). The Affect Heuristic. European Journal of Operational Research, 177 (3), 1333-1352.