5 March 2013

The Sun Is Shining, Everything Feels Better and We Think Differently – The Affect Heuristic

Today is one of those days that have to be marked in the calendar. It is the second consecutive day with clear sky and sunshine in The Netherlands. Everything is brighter, millions of Dutch people are on the streets enjoying the sun and for the first time this year we have temperatures with two digits. To make things a bit more clear to non-Dutch readers, in The Netherlands, between November and March, the best way to see the sun is to search for pictures or hope that it will be shown on TV.

But let’s leave the climate and weather patterns in my host country and think of the following questions were asked to college students (dating is both important and common):

“How happy are you these days?”

“How many dates did you have in the last month?”

Do you think that the answers to these questions are related (correlated)?

It turns out that they are not. The correlation coefficient between the answers to the two questions is close to zero. A decent conclusion is that happiness and dating frequency are unrelated.

But, there is a “catch” to this. When the two questions are presented in the following order, things change.

“How many dates did you have in the last month?”

“How happy are you these days?”

When the order of the questions is reversed, the correlation coefficient between the answers goes to an amazing 0.65 (as I remember). This might not seem “very high”, but when it comes to psychology this is a really high value.

What happened? How come, when we ask about happiness first and about dating second there is no correlation and when we ask about dating first and happiness second there is a high correlation? Are people unaware of how happy they are?

The answer for all these questions is “the affect heuristic”. Let’s see how it works. When we ask about happiness first, people simply give an answer to this question. At the same time this question is not that easy to answer. On the other hand, when we ask people about the number of dates they had in the last month, the answer is not a self-evaluation (such as happiness), rather it is a number that can be easily remembered. There is no wonder that the answers for the two questions are unrelated.

However, when we ask people first about their dating frequency in the last month, the easy numeric answer triggers some emotions. For example, if someone answers that she had 15 dates (one every other day), a positive feeling warms her heart. When the more difficult question about general happiness is asked, substitution occurs. As I said, how happy you are these days is not very easy to answer and when searching for the answer, one will feel good of having 15 dates in the last month (or miserable because of zero dates in the last month) and subsequently answer that she is generally happy (unhappy in the zero dates case).

 Similar results emerged from a study conducted over the telephone that asked the following questions:

“How’s the weather there?”

“How happy are you these days?”

As you may have guessed, when asked in this order, the two answers were highly correlated, but when the order of the questions was reversed, there was no correlation.

The affect heuristic has very profound implications in our lives other than just happiness and college students’ dating habits.

Take for example financial investments. If Joe loves, let’s say, Apple products to the extent that he is willing to sleep with his gadgets, then Joe might put all his money into Apple shares. However, this is not necessarily a smart choice. When choosing in which shares to invest money the correct question to answer is “Is the price of company’s X shares going to rise in the foreseeable future?”. However, this is a very hard question to answer and one will be likely to answer the easier question of “Do I like company’s X products?”. The answer to this second question comes immediately to mind because we know if we like or not something.

The affect heuristic goes beyond decisions regarding what kind of investments to make. What we feel or how we feel about something influences our perceptions on more objective aspects.

For example, people who are against nuclear power simply because they feel that it is wrong will overestimate the risks of nuclear power and will underestimate the benefits it brings. If we think with our feet in cold water, in the entire history there have been only two major accidents concerning nuclear power – Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2012. Despite their disastrous consequences, none of these accidents led to meltdowns or nuclear explosions. Moreover, there are numerous nuclear power plants that function without problems (see the example of France) and provide power without carbon emissions.

People who are against nuclear power will dismiss my arguments as futile. Moreover, they will ignore the benefits of building a nuclear power plant close to their city (such as economic development, cleaner air, an increase in the higher educated population segment etc.) because they simply have negative feelings towards nuclear power.

It goes similarly for other issues which bear a high emotional load such as abortion and the role of the Church in society. People who are against abortion, for example, will dismiss any rational arguments that go against their beliefs, not because they are stupid or incapable of sound reasoning, but because all rational arguments are close to zero when faced with the powerful emotional load that the topic carries.

In politics things go similar. People who like candidate Y will perceive her as more honest and competent even in the absence of real proof. If someone hates candidate Z, then virtually no reasonable arguments in favor of Z will have any influence on voting intentions. Most interestingly, when candidate Z is deeply disliked and some really hard facts are in favor of Z, then people who hate Z will generate counterarguments or even undermine the hard facts simply to support their feelings towards Z.    

In the previous post on the Availability Heuristic, I mentioned that in many cases what is salient in our minds has some emotional load. For example, people perceive that airplanes are more dangerous than cars, despite the facts that there are more car accidents and victims of them than there are airplane accidents and victims of them.

This is a classic example of the availability heuristic because most people can remember easily examples of airplane accidents, but it is rather hard to recall (all) car accidents.

At the same time, I believe that it is not only about availability in memory of instances. This is not to say that shootings are less available in memory than swimming pool accidents, rather I argue why shootings are more easily stored and retrieved from memory than swimming pool accidents.

A shooting or plane crash has higher emotional load than swimming pool and car accidents do. When we hear about a person dyeing because she was shot in a supermarket, we feel very powerful emotions such as fear, insecurity, injustice etc. At the same time when we hear about a person dyeing because she drowned in a public swimming pool, we feel less of these emotions.

The availability heuristic is real and in some cases emotions play a role.

 In the business area, the affect heuristic plays huge roles in marketing, management and human resources.

Not only do we buy things we like, we also dismiss alternatives and generate arguments in favor of what we like. For example if you like to buy clothes from shop A you will underestimate the quality of clothes from shop B. Very likely you will do so even in the presence of some hard facts or direct comparisons.

We take or reject (if affordable) jobs because we feel good about the office environment. Managers support projects they like and projects proposed by people who they like.

Before ending this post, I’d like to go back a bit to what emotions are and to the ups and downs of trusting our emotions.

Emotions are primitive (in an evolutionary sense) responses to outside stimuli. We feel good about something we like and we feel bad about things we don’t like. What we like and what we dislike has, to a certain extent, an evolutionary role. For example we dislike food that smells bad because “bad smell” is an indicator of potential threats. Similarly we like (prefer) things that are familiar simply because we know that what we know is or is not dangerous. Unfamiliar things are perceived more dangerous than non-dangerous.

To a large extent our emotions provide useful information. Take, for example a potential job. How you feel in the office environment, how you feel about your future colleagues could be valuable indicators of your future job satisfaction and job performance.

The downside of the affect heuristic comes from mismatching the emotions and their source. Putting things a bit differently, the shortcomings of the affect heuristic come from answering one question with the answer of “how do I feel?”.

For example, if you have a good feeling about the work environment in a certain job, you have to be sure that the good feeling actually comes from the work environment and not because you eat a chocolate 15 minutes before. Similarly, if you have a good feeling about an apartment you consider renting such as “it feels like home”, you have to be sure that this feeling comes from the apartment and not because it is a sunny day and you feel good about it.

Being critical and even doubting our own feelings is a hard thing to do. However, most likely it will be beneficial.  

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