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affect bias

Most important human judgments are made under conditions of uncertainty. We use heuristics, or rules of thumb, to guide us in such instances as we try to determine what belief or action has the highest probability of being the correct one in a given situation. These rules of thumb are often instinctive and irrational. Social psychologists such as Thomas Gilovich, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Paul Slovic have studied several important heuristics and discovered errors associated with their use. One of these heuristics is the affect heuristic. Our judgment regarding the costs and benefits of items is often significantly influenced by a feeling evoked by pictures or words not directly relevant to the actual cost or benefit. For some, the good or bad feeling they have just prior to making a decision is a bias that influences that decision and renders it irrational. For example, many people are willing to pay more for airline travel insurance that covers death from just terrorist acts than they would pay for insurance that covers death from all possible causes (Gardner 2008: p. 73). The expression "terrorist acts" has strong negative emotive content, which apparently leads many people to an irrational willingness to pay more for less coverage.

Paul Slovic has found that people underestimate the lethality of all diseases except cancer, which is overestimated (Gardner: p. 72). This misperception may be due in part to the strong negative emotive content that the word 'cancer' carries, compared to the emotive meaning of less-charged words like 'diabetes' and 'asthma.'

The affect bias is at work in attracting people to detoxify their bodies with colonic irrigations and other unnecessary "cleansings" of organs that do not need cleansing. The idea of poison arouses fear and leads many people to an emotionally based decision to undergo pointless detoxification treatments.

Advertisers bank on affect bias when they pay top dollar to beautiful celebrities to hawk their products. When Michael Jackson was young and famous as a singer and dancer, he was in demand as a branding icon. I once overheard a young man say to a clerk: "Give me a Michael" instead of "Give me a Pepsi." Jackson was once a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola.

Pollsters understand affect bias when they ask whether people favor "affirmative action" instead of  "preferential treatment," or vice-versa.

Get people to think about death before making a decision and you can apparently drive them to greater harshness or benevolence, depending on their worldviews. As one cheery blogger puts it:

In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror ... reports on research that demonstrates that mortality salience - awareness of one's eventual death - is highly likely to cause a person to engage in worldview defense - a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of death in which a person bolsters his or her worldview. This might mean intensifying connections with one's in-group - patriotism and racial bigotry are commonly intensified - or being more willing to punish minor moral transgressions.*

On the positive side, mortality salience apparently drives some people to altruism and to seek for more meaning in life. Dutch researchers, for example, found that people who had a near-death experience (NDE) became much more empathic and accepting of others after their NDE. They became more appreciative of the ordinary things of life.*

Anyone who has taken a speech class knows that the best way to get an audience on your side—besides packing the room with family and friends—is to tell a joke or a funny story. Laughing usually makes people feel good. An audience that feels good is more likely to be receptive to your message than one that is in a bad mood. The best sales people are often the ones who know how to get a customer to relax and feel good (Levine 2003).

If you have a new golf ball you want to market, don't call it The Slice or The Hook. Call it Ultra or Top Flite or Titleist. Don't call your new laundry soap Drudgery. Call it Cheer, Joy, or Ecos.

If you want to scare people into voting for you, use the following expressions every chance you get: terrorist, weapons of mass destruction, bioterrorism, and nuclear holocaust. Just make sure you associate all these bad things with your opponent. Let the people know that you stand for homeland security, protection, adequate defense, increased safety, and prosperity. Keep reminding the voters that you're strong on national defense and a patriot, while your opponent is weak on national defense and a socialist. And don't forget to smile.

See also anchoring effect, availability error, representativeness error, and the hidden persuaders.

further reading

Ariely, Dan. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins.

Gardner, Daniel. 2008. The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. Dutton.

Gilovich, Thomas. 1993. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press.

Gilovich, Thomas. Dale Griffin and Daniel Kahneman. 2002. eds. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Cambridge University Press.

Groopman, Jerome. M.D. 2007. How Doctors Think. Houghton Mifflin. My review of this book is here.

Kahneman, Daniel. Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. eds. 1982. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

Kida, Thomas. 2006. Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. Prometheus.

Levine, Robert. 2003. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold. John Wiley & Sons.

Pyszczynski, Thomas A. Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. 2002. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. American Psychological Association.

Slovic, Paul. 2000. The Perception of Risk. Earthscan.

Sutherland, Stuart. 1992. rev. 2nd ed. Irrationality. Pinter and Martin.

Last updated 13-Dec-2011

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