The affect heuristic reflects how we need emotions to make rational decisions

Affect Heuristic


The affect heuristic is our reliance on emotions (or affect) to make quick, impulsive decisions and solve problems. Our mind uses emotional responses to speed up information processing and without this ability to feel emotions we are unable to make decisions that are in our best interest.

The affect heuristic reflects how if we have a good feeling about something we perceive the benefits as high and the risks as low. The opposite is true about things that we feel negatively about.  Zajonic (1980) suggests that feelings often precede thinking as affective responses to stimuli are often the first reactions which automatically occur and guide information processing and judgement. All perceptions include some affect.

‘‘We do not just see ‘a house’: We see a handsome house, an ugly house, or a pretentious house’’ Zajonic (p. 154).

When we respond emotionally to stimuli the experiential system automatically searches our memory for related experiences, including their emotional associations. When those associated feelings are positive, they trigger actions and thoughts designed to replicate those feelings. When the feelings are negative they drive actions and thoughts designed to avoid the feelings.

Rather than reviewing risks and benefits independently, people with a negative attitude towards gambling for instance are likely to perceive its benefits as low and risks as high. The affect heuristic is more influential when people do not have the mental resources or time to deliberate over a problem. This explains why peoples’ responses appear more extreme when they are stressed and emotional about a subject.

The affect heuristic is a general purpose heuristic similar to availability and representativeness in that it acts as an orienting device as does similarity and memorability (Kahneman and Frederick, 2002). It may also explain the zero price effect whereby people are drawn much more strongly to a free offer than one which charges a price very close to zero.

The Evidence:

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research indicates that emotional responses are essential to enable humans to behave rationally. People without the capacity to feel emotions are unable to make decisions in their best interests.

Damasio suggests that our thoughts largely comprise images which also incorporate ideas, words, smells and real or imagined visual impressions. Past experience results in these images becoming “marked” by positive and negative feelings which are associated (directly or indirectly) with somatic or bodily states.

 ‘‘In short, somatic markers are … feelings generated from secondary emotions. These emotions and feelings have been connected, by learning, to predicted future outcomes of certain scenarios’’ (Damasio, 1994, p. 174)

In his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, outlines his account of the role of the affect heuristic from his observations of patients with damage to the ventromedial frontal cortices of the brain. Patients’ basic intelligence, memory and capacity for logical deliberation were unaffected, but they were unable to “feel”.

This means they have no associative feelings and emotions with the expected consequences of their behaviour. Through a number of experimental studies he discovered that this type of damage destroys a person’s ability to make rational decisions. That is the ability to make decisions that are in our best interests. People with this damage also become socially dysfunctional despite no damage to their intellectual and analytical abilities.

Implications for digital marketing:

The affect heuristic demonstrates the importance of getting an emotional response from your marketing activity. Ensure you consider how visitors may relate emotionally to your value proposition and content.

This ad from uses powerful imagery and copy to communicate the benefits of life insurance using an emotional story.

Image of fear ad

To generate a positive feeling towards your site use humours images and copy to put visitors in a good mood. Communicate your brand using an uplifting story to engage visitors before introducing how you can solve their problem with your product or brand.

This banner from PaddyPower used humour and novelty to engage visitors to their site during the London Olympics. During the Olympics it was likely that the underground system would be under strain and so PaddyPower suggested betting on which line would experience the longest delays.

Image of use of humour by Paddypower website
Image Source:

Don’t rely solely on a rational argument to persuade visitors to your site. On landing pages ensure there are relevant emotional messages and imagery to engage people at the subconscious level.

Consider using relevant images and words that generally have positive emotional associations to communicate your brand. The implicit association test is a useful method of research to help you identify positive emotional responses to imagery and words.


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See The affect heuristic by Paul Slovic *, Melissa L. Finucane, Ellen Peters, Donald G. MacGregor (2006) for details of a theoretical framework  on the importance of affect in guiding our judgements and decisions.

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