The representativeness heuristic is when we estimate the probability of something based on how similar it is to a known situation.
It is a mental shortcut that often helps us make quick and efficient decisions. People need mental shortcuts because engaging in an in-depth analysis of everything we encounter would just be too time-consuming, and also mentally exhausting.
We use the representativeness heuristic in a very wide variety of situations, from making interpersonal judgments about the people around us, to investment decisions about our stock portfolio.
(Note: The representativeness heuristic is similar to, but should not be confused with, the conjunction fallacy.)
Definition of Representativeness Heuristic
Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1972) came up with the term representativeness heuristic. They define it as follows:
“the probably of an event, or a sample, is determined by the degree to which it: (i) is similar in essential characteristics to its parent population, and (ii) reflects the salient features of the process by which it is generated” (p. 430).
The heuristic plays a valuable role in our thinking processes because of its efficiency. Although we usually think of heuristics as a bias that results in faulty decision-making, this is not always the case. Like most heuristics, this one can have both positive and negative consequences, depending on the specific situation.
Examples of Representativeness Heuristic
1. The Tattooed Man
Perhaps the best example of a representativeness heuristic is the judgment many people of older generations make of people with tattoos.
People of my parent’s generation would often look at tattooed people as rule-breakers who are going nowhere with their life. The tattoo was associated with an underclass of unrespectable people.
This clouded how people with tattoos were seen. In an interview, for example, the tattoos might be seen by the employer as a sign that the person fits into a category of undesirable and unemployable people.
This heuristic unfairly stereotypes the tattooed person who may have a PhD in philosophy for all we know!
2. Medical Diagnosis
Hospitals are often high-pressure settings. Medical staff may have to make a diagnosis as quickly as possible. Sometimes, they rely on a representative heuristic (‘that looks like a rash!’) and then have to investigate further to confirm.
Let’s suppose a young healthy-looking patient enters the emergency room with complaints of numbness in their arm that started when they were at the gym. The first thought might be that the patient hurt themselves while working out.
The nurse might begin by checking for torn tendons, examine the movement of the arms, or even order an X-ray. This makes sense given that the person is young, in shape, and was at the gym when the problem occurred. Their situation has several essential characteristics similar to a muscle issue.
However, the patient failed to mention that they consumed 3 cans of Red Bull and a supplement known to impact the cardiovascular system. That changes the picture completely.
3. Voting Based on Image
Believe it or not, sometimes people vote for a particular candidate without thoroughly examining their stance on all the issues. Instead, we may rely on how well a candidate looks the part.
For example, if someone quite young were to run for president of a country, they may have trouble getting votes because they don’t fit the image we have of a president. Instead of having short grey hair and always wearing a suit, they may have longer dark hair and dress casually from time to time.
Although that candidate may have exceptional knowledge of the issues and actually have views that are in line with many voters, they just don’t seem to represent our concept of “president”.
4. Criminal Investigations
Solving a crime can be a long and difficult process. Unfortunately, this can be the exact type of situation which is affected by negative stereotypes about categories of people assumed to be rule-breakers.
For example, police may start to look for a suspect that focuses disproportionately on minorities. The representativeness heuristic clouds their judgment. They may draw upon the stereotypes they have of which demographic group is most likely to commit that type of crime.
This can lead to a lot of time and resources spent searching for the wrong person. It may even lead to a false arrest.
5. Toddler Says “Horse” when Seeing a Donkey
When toddlers start creating categories in their minds (called mental schema), they often make mistakes. For example, they call horses donkeys because they look similar. Here, the toddler is using the representative heuristic to categorize things.
Toddlers have very limited experience in the world. This means that they often make comments about the things they see that adults find quite humorous. Sometimes this can also give us some insight into how the human mind works.
For example, if watching a T.V. show about a farm, a toddler may confuse a donkey for a horse. This makes perfect sense. Both animals look very similar: large head, elongated mouth, and a long tail.
The physical features of the donkey are similar in essential characteristics to the population of horses. So, when the toddler sees the donkey, they point and say “horse”.
6. Choosing Stocks
A novice investor might choose a stock to invest in based on how much it looks like another successful stock, without looking into the figures properly.
Some investors spend a lot of time looking at charts that show a company’s share price over time. However, a novice investor can easily become a victim of the representativeness heuristic.
Let’s take for example, a particular company that has many similarities of companies in a very profitable industry. So, the investor takes a look at the that company’s chart.
If they choose a period of time that is too narrow, they will get a very skewed impression of the stock price. Although the trend in that narrow range might look quite promising, expanding the timeframe on the chart could reveal a completely different scenario.
That upward trend for the last 6 months may actually be a small part of an overall downward spiral that has been happening over a 5-year span.
The narrow range activates the representativeness heuristic, which turns out to be a costly mistake.
7. Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
This is an old saying, but in a way, it is a lesson about the representativeness heuristic. The cover of a book may lead us to believe it will be of a specific genre and something we would be interested in. Then, when we read, we realize we’ve taken a mental shortcut that led us astray when we judged the book by the cover!
But of course, you never know until you start reading. The same goes with people. Unfortunately, the visual characteristics of people we first meet can have a heavy impact on our impression of them. Even before an interaction.
If they possess several visual characteristics that are similar to a familiar group of people, our stereotype of that group will affect our judgement. Of course, this can change with time and increased communication with that person.
8. Casting for a Movie
Casting directors rely on the audience’s use of the representativeness heuristic to make the story of a movie believable. They intentionally cast actors that “look the part”. For example, they will get a big muscly man to take the part of a spy.
In fact, they rely so heavily on what an actor looks like that they may reject hundreds of actors as soon as they look at their photos.
Innocent housewives will all have a wholesome look. The unscrupulous CEO will have a familiar salt and pepper hairlines. Macho men will all have a jawline made of granite, and villains will always have shifty eyes.
The casting director knows that actors that portray certain types of characters need to fit the audience’s conception of what those people look like. In other words, actors have to fit the representativeness heuristic.
9. The Heavy Metal English Lit Professor
When we come across an old, wise, professor of English literature in a tweed jacket, we most likely will also ascribe a number of characteristics to their personality and treat them with reverence as a result.
For example, they probably enjoy classical music, fine wine, and have a very low-key temperament. We have a very well-defined concept of “English Lit Professor.”
However, if we take a class on the classics and a guy with long hair, blue jeans, and a Metallica t-shirt walks in on the first day, most of us are not going to say “good morning, Dr. Williams.”
In many ways, the representativeness heuristic is a mental shortcut for making decisions based on stereotypes.
10. Product Packaging
When a product is packaged to look like its biggest competitor, the marketers are relying on the representativeness heuristic to convince customers it’s the real deal!
Marketing professionals use a wide range of techniques from cognitive psychology to increase sales. The representativeness heuristic is one.
For example, when trying to gain a larger share of the market, a company entering that sector for the first time will often design their packaging to look very similar to the top seller. Of course, they will set their price a bit lower as well.
The strategy is based on the premise that consumers will assume that the lower priced product is just as good as the top performer because it has so many similarities to it. The packaging is similar, therefore, the products must be similar.
11. Dating and Mating Preferences
Dating can be like playing roulette. You can spin that wheel but you never know where it will stop. We meet someone, assess their observable characteristics, compare that to our existing database of previous date types, and then make a decision as to whether we say yes or no to a date.
That existing database of previous dates is where the representativeness heuristic comes into play. The more their characteristics match the essential characteristics of various group profiles, the more likely we are to conclude they are like that type of person.
If we like that group, then we say yes. Go on the date, talk, then run. Victim of the representativeness heuristic once more. Time to play again. Spin and repeat.
Other Examples of Heuristics
We have seen that the representativeness heuristic affects many aspects of our personal lives, and on many professions. It can filter our impression of people we don’t know yet, influence our choices for dating, and even lead us to vote for a candidate that we are unfamiliar with.
It also plays a significant role in which actors are cast in a movie, suspects pursued in a criminal investigation, and how the packaging of a new product is designed to resemble the top sellers in a given market.
The representativeness heuristic is a double-edged sword. At times in provides a quick and efficient way to make decisions, but at other times it can result in overlooking valuable information and lead us astray.
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