Affect Heuristic: Tell the truth. You just like (or hate) Trump, don’t you? That’s life … a bunch of likes

You’ve been “hearing” a lot of yelling lately on social media — about the president, about the virus, or if you’re lucky, about sports.  You’ve probably read thousands of comments and wasted countless hours on some of these round-and-round-we-go discussions. Have you ever witnessed anyone change their mind? Not often.

Life is just “like” that.

Let me explain. It’s a powerful concept, perhaps the most powerful I’ve stumbled on during my work with  Understanding it, and not falling for it, might be a matter of life or death during this time of coronavirus.

Dating back to the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas hearings, I’ve always been frustrated by this phenomenon: Tell me who someone is, and I’ll tell you their opinion about an issue before they even reveal it.  All I need to know is which “team” they’re on.

In my ongoing set of essays for, I try to explain some commonly observed cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that we all employ.   In the past, I’ve written about confirmation bias, and how that impacts the way we see the world.  There’s a close play at the plate. Chicago Cubs fans think he’s out; St. Louis Cardinals fans think he’s safe. And that’s life.

“All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” Simon and Garfunkel sang in their hit song, “The Boxer.”

Confirmation bias, however, only explains part of what’s going on. I’ve recently written about a more complete, and more simple, explanation.

We like what we like. And who we like.

You might watch President Trump suggest that New York City health care professionals are sneaking safety masks “out the back door” and feel repulsed.  Someone else might watch and nod along, or even find Trump funny.  If you engage this person on social media, your dialog will probably deteriorate quickly into competing and escalating rhetorical rants. To me, these feel like a twisted game of Name That Tune, or the Kevin Bacon Game.  How many comments before someone brings up Hillary Clinton’s emails?

Of course, none of this dialog matters.  The Trump supporter is a fan, the way the Cubs supporter is a fan. He just likes Trump.  Conversely, he probably hates President Obama, and you like him. And that’s really what matters.  Not all those facts and figures and one-liners and history lessons. It’s all about likes and dislikes.

There’s a fancy name for this phenomenon: “affect heuristic.” I wrote about this recently at PeopleScience.  As I say in the piece, an affect is shorter-term and more impulsive than a mood. You might describe it as simply a gut-level “I like him” kind of reaction. Researchers Paul Slovic and Ellen Peters call it a “faint whisper of emotion” that leaves people with a general feeling of “goodness or badness” about something – consciously or unconsciously. But this faint whisper can be thunderously loud in many situations. Every time you ask yourself why someone fell for that bad-news boyfriend, or bought stock from that sleazy broker, or bought a car from that even-sleazier sales guy, listen carefully to the victim’s answer: it’s often a slight variation of, “But he was a nice guy.”

Understanding this might help you engage people differently during disagreements, or at least help you disengage. You can’t fight affect with fact. As I explain below, all the deadly facts in the world can’t even compete with the feeling smokers get by lighting up.  Depressingly, the more complex a problem, the more we tend to rely on affects. So, wrestling with affect heuristic calls for different strategies.

Now here’s the tricky part. Right now, you are probably seeing clearly how this applies to people on the other side of your last big argument. “Of course! I couldn’t reason with him because he thought she was cute!” That’s the easy part.  But can you apply this to yourself? Can you see where you took a side or made a choice because you had a gut-level, warm-and-fuzzy feeling? Facts be damned? If not, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

During regular times in political silly seasons, this kind of tribal fighting can be sort of harmless, akin to Yankees and Red Sox fans booing each other. That’s how it often feels to me. But today, we face a far more serious adversary. The coronavirus is no joke. It’s also no time to rely on gut-level reactions, or to agree with someone because he or she is saying what you want to hear, or to take medical advice from someone just because you like her. Now is a time for science. It’s a time to admit how little we know, and to admit the only way to learn things is through scientifically designed experiments.

There’s good science behind the theory of affect heuristic.

Here’s a flavor of the piece, but you should read the whole thing at

Decision making is a vast and complex beast, full of rational and irrational processes. As we move through life, making hundreds or even thousands of choices each day, we don’t have time to ponder each one of them with all the analysis it deserves. So we use mental shortcuts – heuristics. These can be based on past experiences (the burrito from that food truck was good last week) or on watching what peers do (social proof) or on comparing to other decisions we’ve made (anchoring). But perhaps the most powerful decision-making shortcut we use exists on a deeply unconscious, primal, gut level. How you feel about something, or someone, strongly predisposes you to make positive or negative choices.

Perhaps that’s obvious. But in truth, how you feel – period – matters a lot, too. The age-old trick of telling a joke before making a sales pitch is age-old for a reason. Science tells us that if you put people in a good frame of mind, they are more likely to overweight the benefits of what you are asking them to do and underweight the risks.

Writing back in 1980, social psychologist R.A. Zajonc made the point that no one sees just a house. “We see a handsome house, an ugly house, or a pretentious house,” he wrote. These visceral reactions have powerful influence over our choices.

“We sometimes delude ourselves that we proceed in a rational manner and weigh all the pros and cons of the various alternatives. But this is probably seldom the actual case. Quite often ‘I decided in favor of X is no more than ‘I liked X,’” Zajonc writes.

Artists and sales staff have understood this feature of human nature for a long time, if not by name. Think of the impact that music has on movie scenes. Magically, the impending doom of a young couple being chased by a masked man with a machete is dramatically more visceral when a movie score helps ratchet up your heart rate.

Once these gut-level reactions are set, they are hard to change. Sadly, for many smokers, reams of data on smoking risks and warnings from the surgeon general don’t stand a chance against images of people having fun with cigarettes in their hand.

The power of affect at work is hard to overstate. It’s at least part of the reason good-looking people earn higher salaries than below average counterparts (sometimes called ‘beauty bias’). Smiling might help you get away with more, too. A study of academic violators cleverly called “Why Smiles Generate Leniency” showed those who smiled received lighter punishments.

Read the complete story at









Don’t miss a post. Sign up for my newsletter

About Bob Sullivan 1648 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Do we really have a choice?It’s not like,if I say I don’t particularly like Trump,I’m still forced to vote for him,if the alternative is some Democrat,who is even more a big govt fascist than is Trump.Last election,I voted for Johnson,the Libertarian party nominee.That’s because everyone said that Hillary had it sewed up.So I decided to vote for the best,rather than the least of evils,Trump over Hillary.Anyway,when I see these fascists(AKA Democrats) attacking Trump,I have to defend Trump,unless they are supporting something better.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The cognitive bias collection —
  2. What Can You Do with 60 Days? A Lot — Take the 2-Month Challenge
  3. It's time to apply some people science to the vaccine hesitancy problem —

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.