Monday, January 30, 2012

affect bias

The affect bias refers to our tendency to make judgments based on feelings of liking or disliking with little input from deliberative reasoning.

Our judgment regarding the costs and benefits of items is often significantly influenced by a feeling evoked by pictures or words not directly relevant to the actual cost or benefit. For some, the good or bad feeling they have just prior to making a decision is a bias that influences that decision and renders it irrational. For example, many people are willing to pay more for airline travel insurance that covers death from just terrorist acts than they would pay for insurance that covers death from all possible causes (Gardner 2008: p. 73). The expression "terrorist acts" has strong negative emotive content, which apparently leads many people to an irrational willingness to pay more for less coverage.

 "The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world" (Kahneman 2011: p. 103). 

The affect bias hinders our ability to see the potential negative consequences of our own position and the potential positive consequences of an opponent's position.

Paul Slovic has found that people underestimate the lethality of all diseases except cancer, which is overestimated (Gardner: p. 72). This misperception may be due in part to the strong negative emotive content that the word 'cancer' carries, compared to the emotive meaning of less-charged words like 'diabetes' and 'asthma.'

The affect bias is at work in attracting people to detoxify their bodies with colonic irrigations and other unnecessary "cleansings" of organs that do not need cleansing. The idea of poison arouses fear and leads many people to an emotionally based decision to undergo pointless detoxification treatments. Similar tactics are used in the advertising of “feminine hygiene” products to remove “offensive odors” from “down there.”

Advertisers bank on affect bias when they pay top dollar to beautiful celebrities to hawk their products. When Michael Jackson was young and famous as a singer and dancer he was in demand as a branding icon. I once overheard a young man say to a clerk: "Give me a Michael" instead of "Give me a Pepsi." Jackson was once a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola.

Pollsters should understand that affect bias will affect the responses they receive. They should know that they will get different results depending on whether they ask people if they favor preferential treatment of women and minorities (rather than affirmative action) or if they are against abortion (rather than for freedom of choice).

Anyone who has taken a speech class knows that the best way to get an audience on your side—besides packing the room with family and friends—is to tell a joke or a funny story. Laughing usually makes people feel good. An audience that feels good is more likely to be receptive to your message than one that is in a bad mood. The best sales people are often the ones who know how to get a customer to relax and feel good (Levine 2003).

Clever speakers can manipulate the unwary with words that arouse positive or negative feelings. On one side are what Jamie Whyte calls hurrah words: peace, love, victory, happiness, security, safety, protect, innocent, freedom, liberty, justice, democracy, courage, confidence, and tax relief. If you’re trying to arouse sympathy to your viewpoint, no matter how obnoxious, deceptive, or pernicious that viewpoint might be, sprinkle your speech with plenty of hurrah words. On the other side are the boo words. If you’re trying to arouse opposition to others be sure to include several boo words in your speech: hate freedom, hate liberty, terrorize, attack, barbarity, murdered, threat, cowards, evil, kill, extremists, radical, tyranny, dictator, arrogant, woo-woo, pseudoscience, and liberal. Boo words arouse sympathy by provoking contempt. Of course, different audiences respond differently to the same words. The word socialist, for example, may arouse either positive or negative feelings, depending on the audience. Lately, it seems that many Republicans use the word 'government' as a boo word. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to be using 'create jobs' as a hurrah expression. The expression as used in political debates has a definite positive aura but seems to have little cognitive meaning.

Political columnist David Brooks captured the power of the affect bias when he wrote: "Most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds, and [Republican presidential candidate Newt] Gingrich is demagogically happy to play the role." Gingrich has been providing this service for many years.
When Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, wanted to arouse sympathy for the Republican Party prior to the 2006 November elections he created a new political enemy: “San Francisco left-wing activists.” If you haven’t heard of these folks, they are the ones who have “San Francisco left-wing values.” These are people with liberal values who run with the elite media. They want to raise taxes and either “cut and run” or “run and hide” from Iraq. They represent “the failed policies of higher taxes, more regulation and bloated bureaucratic structures of the past.” They support policies of appeasement and defeatism. According to Mr. Gingrich, “If you think you have too much money in your family budget, then you have a party to vote for, because Democrats will gladly raise your taxes shifting your money from your family to Washington bureaucrats.” And, “if you want to go back to high taxes, high interest rates, high inflation, slower economic growth, more unemployment, fewer savings, shorter vacations and more bureaucracy, then you have a party in the Democrats.” Shorter vacations? Yes, according to Mr. Gingrich, the Democrats can even shorten your vacation if elected. That’s how evil and powerful those San Francisco liberal, radical, left-wing Democrats are. (Carroll 2011: Kindle Locations 932-941).
Finally, music is one of the great mood changers. Changing someone's mood is often the quickest way to get them to agree to an idea they might otherwise find boring or unpleasant. If I am in a grouchy mood and you want to bias me in the direction of some plan of action, playing Mark Knopfler's "Wild Theme" from Local Hero will usually do the trick. And those of us with some life experience have known a few Proustian moments involving agreeable odors or tastes that not only triggered pleasant memories and feelings but also made us susceptible to accepting an irrational proposition or two.



  1. This is one of my favorite writers (since I also happen to be an Objectivist as he is):

    I think it is the perfect example of affect bias. In this case some (not all) of those advocating the issue of catastrophic global warming have let their dislike of particular groups to cloud their logical reasoning. That kind of bias is very blatant for people who do not star from the same position as they do (in terms of viewing Heartland or the 'skeptics' as insidious deniers). Some of these people making these statements are very smart journalists and scientists. Its not a matter of intelligence but rather lack of introspection that allows them to slip into such pitfalls.

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