The Affect Heuristic: How We Feel is How We Think


When we are upset, we are hardly ever rational. This psychological phenomenon is the affect heuristic.

Do you feel that your emotions control what you think? Or do you find it difficult to be rational when you are emotional?

Consider this example: If someone has harmed you, you quickly arrive at the conclusion that this person is cold, unfriendly or hostile etc. In fact, even if the person didn’t harm you on purpose, you may still think about him or her in the same way. Your emotions dictate how you think about him or her, meaning that you are under the influence of the affect heuristic (bias).

So, what is the affect heuristic? First, we need a little background information to understand the psychological principles behind it. According to Epstein (1994), there are two modes of thinking: the experiential and the analytic thinking mode:

“There is no dearth of evidence in every day life that people apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways, one variously labeled intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential, and the other analytical, deliberative, verbal, and rational.” (p. 710)

What these thinking modes have in common is that they guide our decision-making and motivate our behavior. They serve to navigate us in a rather complex world.

The analytic thinking mode is deliberative and conscious in contrast to the experiential thinking mode, which is fully automatic and unconscious. For this reason, the analytic thinking mode is more effortful, and not to forget, slower.

When making decisions, we make use of both thinking modes, but we often rely on our emotions to guide us (the experiential thinking mode) as it produces some quick solutions to our problems (Pham & Avnet, 2009), which is the so-called affect heuristic.

Research shows how the affect heuristic affects people’s decision-making. A study by Pham & Avnet (2004), published in Journal of Consumer Research, found that the participants were more easily persuaded by the attractiveness of an advertisement when they were primed with an (emotional) ideal compared to an (analytic) “ought”.

When they were primed with an “ought”, the participants relied on the underlying message of advertisement instead of the emotional aspects of it. They used the analytic thinking mode, in other words.

So, consumers rely on both their emotions and their rational sense to guide their behavior, depending on characteristics of the situation. When they are primed to think in a certain way, they think accordingly.

Small-scale research by Pham & Avnet (2009) supports the above-mentioned findings, and they extend the findings by showing that many judgment tasks are affected by the affect heuristic.

Moreover, the authors show that the affect heuristic happens because of people’s general thinking modes and their incidental moods. Some people tend to make decisions quickly; others tend to make decisions more slowly.

In other words, some rely on their emotions to guide them; others rely on their analytic sense. Taken together, these findings support the idea of the two thinking modes that Epstein put forward in 1994.

The take-home-message of this post is that we should be aware of our tendency to think in terms of how we feel. Sometimes, the affect heuristic serves us well as it allows us to make quick decisions.

But when it comes to making the right, or at least more rational, decisions, we may need some time to reflect on the consequences of our decisions.

For example: is my decision in line with my personal values and goals, and what are the long-term consequences of my decision? These rational thoughts are just a few – and I am sure you get my point.

Thanks for reading!

Image: Bob May