Intro to Representativeness Heuristic

Psychologists describe mental shortcut judgments we all make as ‘heuristics’.  These mental shortcuts or “rules of thumb” are something we develop in our daily lives.  These are everyday common occurrences we all have due to the way our brains have evolved over time.  Often these heuristics are helpful to our survival.  For instance, if our cave-dwelling ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes behind them, a quick mental shortcut may be necessary to either run away from danger or prepare to battle a predator.  Those who would stand around, slowly logically thinking what this rustling could possibly mean ended up as a lion’s dinner.  This intuition has slowly evolved in our brains through the millennia of human cognition to where we are today.  These mental shortcuts, however, can lead to cognitive biases, errors in logic and other prejudices.  One such error is the representative heuristic.

Imagine if a friend of yours called you to talk about the date she just went on the previous night. She describes the guy as “kind of geeky, but in a cute way” using words such as “shy”, “smart”, “bookish”, and “slightly awkward” to describe his personality.  You ask her what he looks like and she responds with “skinny but tall, wearing glasses with a nice pressed shirt and black tie”.  She says he was very engaging when talking about the news of the day, but he failed to recognize her favorite pop song that was playing in the restaurant.  You ask “what kind of work does he do?” already having an idea of what the answer is.

If presented with the possibility that her date is one of these three: climate scientist, police officer or bartender, which would you choose?  Think about it.  I’ll give you a minute…..



Made your choice?  Good.  According to the classic study by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted in the 1970s, you may be likely to predict that your friend’s date is a climate scientist.  Tversky and Kahneman conducted a study using a similar description of a fictional person.  They split up a group of college students into 3 separate groups with each reading the same description of fictional fellow student “Tom”.  One group was asked what kind of academic major Tom most closely resembles.  The second group was asked the probability that Tom’s major was, in fact, the one the first group chose.  The third and final group was asked a seemingly unrelated question. They were asked to estimate the percentage of students in each of nine different majors at their school.  The first group, using the description of Tom as a man with “high intelligence” with a “need for order and clarity and for neat and tidy systems”, determined Tom most closely resembled an engineering major.  The second group, using the same description, determined that Tom is most likely an engineering major.  The third group estimated that a relatively small percentage of students at the school were actually engineering majors.  Even though a small percent of students at the school were engineering majors, the subjects determined Tom was an engineering major based solely on his description.  From a probability factor, he is more likely to major in an academic focus that is more popular at the school.

Getting back to your friend and her date, if you predicted that her date was a climate scientist, you are suffering from the representativeness heuristic.  This is the name Tversky and Kahneman applied to the condition of making judgments based upon representativeness instead of the relevant information.  There are far more police officers in the world than climate scientists.  Bartenders also make up far greater numbers than climate scientists.  Based on this probability alone, your friend’s date should be one of these two occupations.  You may have chosen climate scientist based on your representative idea of how a scientist may look or act.  Picture a climate scientist in your head.  Think of the person.  Is he a man?  Does he have glasses?  How is he dressed?  Is he alone or in a group?  What are the characteristics you would expect to find in a scientist?  This picture you have created in your own mind doesn’t come automatically to us out of nowhere.  Picture a police officer, a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, a skater, a hipster, a professional athlete, a plumber.  To better quickly understand our world, our brain takes mental shortcuts in coming up with a representative for all of these groups.

This mental shortcut can be helpful in certain ways.  If you see a person in a police uniform walking down the street after you just got mugged, you may automatically run towards them for help without having to process whether this person is actually a police officer or not.

The representativeness heuristic can help you avoid danger and make quick decisions, but it also can be quite dangerous when we make generalizations based on our biases.

The representative our brain creates for these groups is shaped from our experiences and culture in our society.  Have you ever met a climate scientist?  Odds are, probably not.  How, then, do you already have an idea of what he or she looks like?  How do you know how he or she dresses, acts, thinks?  Where did these notions come from?  Our culture is constantly evolving to encompass our daily lives.  From music to movies to television, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, politics, economics, books, newspapers, magazines, radio, marketing and a host of other avenues, culture affects all of us.  Our mind likes to find order in our surroundings.  We connect a scientist to the intellect needed to do the job.  We connect overly intellectual individuals with certain social and physical characteristics such as social awkwardness, introversion, wearing glasses or pocket protectors, etc.  These social and physical characteristics are cultural phenomenon.  How many movies and television shows portray nerdy, be-spectacled, awkward scientists?  This archetype has become engrained in our culture.  The same can be said for other representatives.  The hipster, the skater, the nurse, the emo kid, the plumber, the country singer, the rapper.  These representatives have become easily accessible in our brains. We can picture each one with subsequent characteristics.  Years of living in our society give each of these labels certain connotations.

When your television screens, radios, newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media outlets describe a certain group with the same characteristics again and again and again, culture will be shaped along with it.  Whether you personally consume this information from these sources or not, the ideas put out in the world help to shape discussion. For example, a story found on the Drudge Report today will find its way onto the Sean Hannity radio show tomorrow and onto Fox News the next day.  The next week, the White House briefing room is full of questions concerning the story which puts the story on CNN, MSNBC and the Evening News.  Your mother watches the Evening News and asks you about the story the following week.  You don’t need to consume the story itself for it to affect your culture and your life.

Our culture helps to give you a representative of a nerd.  Watch The Big Bang Theory and you have your archetype nerds performing up to the standards we as a society have set for what nerds should look like, what they should act like and what they should be doing with their lives.

Our culture supplies the public with archetypes everyday.  From the nerd to the jock to the rebel to the vixen, popular culture often defines archetypes for quick, easy consumption by the audience.  It’s not just nerds that are being categorized. It’s liberals. It’s conservatives. It’s Democrats and Republicans. It’s neo-liberals and ‘establishment’ politicians.  Next, we will see how these labels have transformed how we all see politics.