Behind the Mind: Affect Heuristic

How We Use Behavioral Psychology to Better Our Research and Your Brand

Our Emotions Influence Our Actions

The way we feel at any given time affects the decisions we make — whether a decision is as trivial as, “I’m going to have oatmeal for breakfast,” or as significant as, “I’m going to opt for an epidural during labor.” 

In the case of the first decision, waking up in a happy, low-stress mood can prompt a person to reach for a bag of rolled oats in the pantry rather than take a spin through a drive-through for donuts. 

In the case of the second decision, a woman may write an extensive birth plan to opt out of certain medical interventions during childbirth months before her baby is due. But after she’s labored for hours, she may opt for medication as fear, pain, and anxiety build.

Behavioral psychologists characterize these automatic emotion-driven choices as the affect heuristic.

The Affect Heuristic

  • Affect: an automatic “good” or “bad” emotional response to a stimulus
  • Heuristic: a mental shortcut that allows quick decision making and problem solving

The affect heuristic allows us to make decisions in the moment without conducting extensive research or weighing pros and cons. While this type of decision making is not as thoughtful or careful as other forms of decision making, it’s critical to our survival.

Because emotions influence us in the moment, it’s hard to predict future behavior.

The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

Economist and psychologist George Loewenstein coined the phrase hot-cold empathy gap to explain how people’s current emotional states impact their feelings and decisions. As humans, we experience hot states and cold states. 

Hot States

  • Someone feels high-energy emotions, such as anger or fear
  • The person tends to value short-term goals over long-term goals

According to Loewenstein, people in hot states also tend to:

  • “Underappreciate the extent to which their preferences and behavioral inclinations are influenced by their affective state.”
  • “Believe that they are behaving more dispassionately than they actually are.”
  • “Overestimate the stability of their own current preferences.”

Cold States

  • Someone feels low-energy emotions, such as calmness or happiness
  • The person tends to value long-term goals over short-term goals

According to Loewenstein, people in cold states also tend to:

  • “Underestimate the motivational force of their own future hot states.”
  • “Fail to take measures to avoid situations that will induce [hot] states or to prepare to deal with those that are inevitable.”

The hot-cold empathy gap refers to the way we often fail to accurately predict our future behavior and preferences. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, physical pain – and any other feelings – impact the state we’re in.

Imagine, for example, you take a trip to the grocery store on an empty stomach. When transferring the contents of your cart to the checkout conveyor belt, you  notice some (or many) unnecessary items in it. In this scenario, hunger drove you  down the cookie aisle and persuaded you to overbuy.

Hot-cold empathy gaps play an important role in healthcare decision making.

Our inability to predict how hot or cold states impact our behavior creates an empathy disconnect. Healthcare practitioners and patients often occupy different emotional states, which makes it hard for them to relate to one another. Furthermore, patients must often make medical decisions in a state of anxiety, fear, pain, or discomfort — all of which can influence their behavior in the moment. For that reason, patients may make long-term decisions on the basis of current feelings. 

Loewenstein’s own research, albeit a bit dated, suggests hot-cold empathy gaps influence healthy people to overexpose themselves to certain health risks. For example, a doctor may deliver adverse health news to a patient, which creates a hot-cold empathy gap whereby the patient makes a long-term decision on the basis of her current — often temporary — feelings. 

Behavioral psychology helps us understand our clients’ customers, patients, and products.

To be empathetic, you need to understand what a person’s emotional state will be in a specific moment —  such as when they’re purchasing a specific product — and put yourself in that state too. 

At Brado, we recognize the mental shortcuts humans take. We don’t assume a person will act in a certain way without taking their emotional state into account. And we understand the unseen variables that impact behavior. Thus, we can design better, more informed questions to ask your customers. Those questions provide our clients with more accurate information and recommendations to help them attract and communicate with the people who most need their products, services, and treatments.

In this video, Brado’s behavioral science lead Catrina Salama breaks down the affect heuristic, hot and cold states, and how emotions influence decision making. By understanding the affect heuristic, we can help you make more meaningful, effective connections with your audience.

Catrina Salama, M.A.

Catrina Salama has a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and leads Brado’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. She has significant experience in hospital, academic and private settings, and has pursued various roles that include research, teaching, assessment and clinical counseling. Catrina’s specialty has been uncovering emotional experiences, guiding self-awareness, building identity and working with diverse populations. An Honors graduate from Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, Catrina immerses herself in current psychology research, while doing her best to keep up with her four-year-old son, who is fond of making cameo appearances on all her video conference calls.

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