Information processing theory provides a unique perspective to understanding the concept of heuristics.  Accordingly, it is well recognized that a person can only process limited amounts of information in working memory at a time (Ormrod, 2008).  Any information over and above creates a cognitive overload.  There are a variety of ways to compensate for this limitation.  One particularly effective method is automaticity.  (Please note, I said effective, not necessarily beneficial).  For instance, when you first learn a new skill such as sewing, driving, or even alphabetizing, it requires significant attention.  However, after time and practice, we automate the experience.  When was the last time you arrived home from work and could not remember the drive?  This is an example of dissociation related to automaticity.  We automate processes we are experienced with so that cognitive resources are left open for new stimuli and utilization.  A similar theory within social psychology is the cognitive miser defined as “the theory that, far from being naïve scientists, we are reluctant to expend cognitive resources and look for any opportunity to avoid engaging in effortful thought” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 381).

This relates to heuristics because according to Crisp and Turner (2010) heuristics are “timesaving mental shortcuts that reduce complex judgments to simple rules of thumb” (p. 386).  In an effort to avoid cognitive overload it makes sense that our brains would attempt to automate or simplify information whenever possible or essentially behave as cognitive misers.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic is “the tendency to allocate a set of attributes to someone if they match the prototype of a given category” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 65, Fiske, 2010).  There are times that this heuristic comes in handy.  For instance, the mere presence of a car on the freeway with lights on its roof or black and white paint typically results in drivers slowing down and using turn signals.  This is clearly the result of our tendency to associate black and white cars and/or cars with lights on the roof with police cars or highway patrol officers.  Although this causes drivers to drive more cautiously, it often causes me physical anxiety in spite of the fact I do not speed and I use my turn signals.  I am certain it is directly related to the connection in my mind between police officers and being caught for doing something wrong, even if I have not done anything wrong.

There are numerous examples of this heuristic resulting in embarrassing mistakes.  For instance, our text describes the situation in which a Mayor was mistaken for a waiter (Fiske, 2010).  Similarly, on more than one occasion I have seen a person in a store with a name tag and mistaken them for an employee of that store, when, in fact, they actually worked for a completely different company and just happened to have their name tag on.

As another example, during the day I work as a legal secretary.  I answer the telephone, type dictation, and run the office.  On more than one occasion, a client has talked with me and said something to the effect that they were surprised I was educated because I was working as a receptionist/secretary.  The clients assume that because I fill the role (represent) of a receptionist/secretary that I must not have an advanced education.  This is a great example of an error in using this heuristic.

Anchoring Heuristic

“Anchoring is the tendency to be biased towards the starting value (or anchor) in making quantitative judgments” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 68).  One of our resources for this week discussed public perceptions within politics.  “Scholars have extensively explored the issue of negativity bias in cognitive and social psychology and in political behavior research, particularly as it relates to economic voting. For instance, examining the impact of short-run economic changes on congressional voting, Bloom and Price (1975) find that although the deterioration of economic conditions hurts the president’s party, better conditions do not necessarily aid it” (as cited in Sirin & Villalobos, 2011, p.338).  In situations such as these, it would seem that perhaps, in addition to the negativity bias, the anchoring heuristic is confounding the issues at hand.  Further, although this next example does not take into account numerical considerations, the concept appears the same.  “With regards to longitudinal dynamics, Peffley (1989) suggests that people develop their perceptions of presidential competence early on in a president’s term and subsequently refer to those perceptions when deciding whether to attribute credit or blame for economic policy conditions. He further argues that such perceptions are open to revision if the president’s continuing performance on the economy takes a noticeable and lasting turn, for better or worse” (as cited in Sirin & Villalobos, 2011, p. 338).  In this example, individuals are measuring future information against their initial perceptions of the president on the issue, rather than considering the information independently.



Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010).  Essential social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ormrod, J. (2008).  Human Learning (5th ed.).  New Jersey, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Sirin, C. V., & Villalobos, J. D. (2011, June).  Where does the buck stop? Applying attribution theory to examine public appraisals of the president.  Presidential Studies Quarterly, 41(2), 334-357. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org


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