Psychological Heuristics

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Psychological Heuristics are cognitive mechanisms that influence people’s judgments and their rational decisions. A heuristic is a “mental shortcut” that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently but not necessarily accurately. They help the person preserve cognitive resources, but they can lead to cognitive biases. Cognitive psychologists have shown that individuals cannot have an objective rational thinking, because they cannot operate with accurate probabilities. Instead they tend to make approximations based on their intuition, incomplete data, familiar (salient) information, or personal examples. [1][2]

Three types of heuristics are very frequent and have implications for Risk Perception: [3]

  • The availability heuristic involves making decisions based upon how easy it is to bring something to mind. Recent examples are usually most easily recalled since these are more readily available in your memory. However, activating a singular example (not necessarily representative for the whole population!) or examples based on what the media is recurrently evoking, causes a biased risk perception.
  • The representativeness heuristic involves making decisions by comparing the present situation to the most representative mental prototype.
  • The affect heuristic involves making decisions based on emotions experienced at a particular moment in time. For example, a positive emotion will cause an underestimation of risk and overstating the potential benefits [4] [5]

See also


  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1131.
  2. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.
  3. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(1), 207–233.
  4. Finucane, M.L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S.M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13, 1-17.
  5. Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., MacGregor, D.G., (2002). The Affect Heuristic. În Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, & Daniel Kahneman. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Cambridge University Press, pp. 397–420.