According to Kahneman and Miller (1986) the act of simulating various outcomes within our minds, prior to or after, committing an act is the utilization of a simulation heuristic.  When engaged in prior to commission, these simulations aid us in deciding how to act.  When engaged in after the fact, these simulations aid us in understanding the outcome and/or determine how it could have been avoided, if negative.  Importantly, Kahneman and Miller (1986) also state “reasoning flows not only forward, from anticipation and hypothesis to confirmation or revision, but also backward, from the experience to what it reminds us of or makes us think about” (p. 137).  Outcomes resulting in alternative simulations are defined as counterfactual thoughts typically arising out of negative outcomes accompanied by emotional angst (Moskowitz, 2005).  Research has evidenced that simulations and counterfactual realities “produce amplification of emotional reactions” “alter the way in which events are experienced” and “have a strong impact on forming impressions and reaching conclusions about people” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 147).  For instance, research indicates when provided with scenarios in which inaction versus action on the part of an individual results in an unfavorable outcome, the perceiver is more likely to attribute blame to that individual.

Example.  The information gathered regarding simulations and counterfactual realities was especially poignant for me because I run simulations constantly during decision-making and after the fact.  In fact, I often experience a great deal of anxiety prior to making major decisions as I envision all of the potential outcomes and/or consequences of a particular course of action.  Moreover, when outcomes of decisions are decidedly negative, I often ruminate over the counterfactual realities experiencing a great deal of regret and remorse, wishing I had done things differently.  For instance, in my recent situation with my previous landlord I have been quite concerned over taking the next step in the process of recovering my security deposit.  I looked up the California Civil Statutes relating to landlord-tenant relations and wrote an extensive letter to the landlord, but I did not immediately mail the letter.  Rather, I contemplated the various outcomes of sending the letter first.  I also had my husband, my father, and my boss (the lawyer) all read the letter and express their opinions as to its tone, reasonableness, etc.  I was able to discern several potential outcomes from sending the landlord a letter regarding the legal statutes and her responsibility to return my security deposit.  For instance, potential outcomes include the landlord being upset, contacting a lawyer to verify my research, ignoring the legal information, refusing to refund our monies, or realizing she erred in not returning the deposit timely and refunding the monies.  However, not sending the letter I was only able to envision the landlord not sending the monies out for another two months, and potentially deducting a great deal from the deposit, both of which are against the California Civil Code Sections researched, which I provided her with a copy.  The outcome of that scenario would guarantee a further trip to Small Claims Court.  Ultimately, I opted for the proactive approach in the hopes of reaching an agreement without legal intervention.  I mailed the letter yesterday; however, I am still anxious over the decision and will likely remain emotionally invested due to the ruminating simulations in my psyche.

Prior to becoming aware of this heuristic and its connection to emotional affect in using it, I have previously struggled with diminishing the simulations prior to making major decisions, especially because the anxiety triggered is especially harmful.  I have learned to combat this with making a logical list of pros and cons, inclusive of potential positive and negative outcomes, as well as including others in the decision-making process, allowing for an open mind and consideration of other alternatives.  This usually results in ending the ruminating factor and allows the anxiety aspect to subside.  After the fact simulations have been more difficult to force aside as they are typically linked to especially negative outcomes, such as the loss of my son, loss of a job, or loss of a friendship.  However, again writing about the incident in question typically helps, as does the logical rationale in understanding that although we believe we control every aspect of our lives, the reality is that we do not.  That is just another illusion we as humans suffer from.


“People make decisions regarding the probabilities that govern relationships between entities (e.g., people and categories) based on the degree to which one is representative of the other” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 142-143).  Further, Moskowitz (2005) provides that this heuristic implies a “if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck” (p. 143) rule.  In general judgments and categorizing representativeness is a cognitive time saver because general judgments relating to simple categories, such as categorizing a dog from a description of a small animal with four legs that barks, would make sense (Kahneman & Miller, 1986).  The problem occurs when the judgments relate to more important decisions and our personal experiences, from which our representative schemas are made, are nonrepresentative of the larger world categories or, even if they are representative, the base rate information is ignored by the perceiver (Gilovich & Griffin, 2010).

Example.  My son attends a private Christian school.  I work full-time to pay for his tuition and it is a significant struggle.  I often wish I had the luxury of being home for him when he comes home from school.  However, I have met many of his classmates’ parents who seem happily married, and the majority of which have mothers who are stay at home moms.  Until this week, I had not realized my feelings and judgment regarding this matter were directly affected by the representativeness heuristic, as well as the availability heuristic.  Due to my direct proximate experience with mothers of school age children who are stay at home moms, I jumped to the erroneous conclusion that most mothers of children in school are stay at home moms.  I had completely ignored the base rate information, the actual percentages of happily married families, with stay at home mothers in Southern California, much less nationwide.

Outcome.  The original outcome of this judgment was that I felt badly because I am unable to stay at home for my son and pay for his tuition, when it seemed that the majority of other families had found a way to accomplish this tremendous feat.  Ergo, there must be something wrong with me and/or the way my family was providing for my son.  Although I had been aware of this heuristic prior to this week, I had not applied it to my judgments in this regard.  Admittedly, I now feel both better and worse.  I feel better emotionally realizing that my error was judgment related, not parenting related.  I feel a little worse because I fell victim to this logical error, although, quite a number of professional decision makers also fall victim to this error as well (Gilovich & Griffin, 2010).  Several research studies with graduate students and/or students from Harvard have also made representative errors as well (Gilovich & Griffin, 2010).

Recognition of Utilization

Two ways I can recognize my use of heuristics in the future are (1) become more aware of the various types of heuristics, including as within this discussion post, identifying specific times that I have actually used them; and, (2) seek out feedback from others also familiar with heuristics and run by scenarios with them to ensure I am not committing the same errors in judgment.  Further, especially as relates to the representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic (not specifically discussed herein), taking a step back and analyzing the decision, probabilities, etc. from other perspectives may also help.  Accordingly, research has found that when classic heuristic problems are presented in a frequency rather than probability format, the logic errors are diminished significantly (Hazelton et al., 2009).



Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Oettingen, G. (2010). Motivation. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 268-316). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

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

Gilovich, T. D., & Griffin, D. W. (2010). Judgment and decision making. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 542-588). Hoboken,  NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Hazelton, M. G., Bryant, G. A., Wilke, A., Frederick, D. A., Galperin, A., Frankenhuis, W. E., & Moore, T. (2009, October). Adaptive rationality: An evolutionary perspective on cognitive bias. Social Cognition, 27(5), 733-763. Retrieved from http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Haselton-Adaptive-rationality-an-evolutionary-perspective-on-cognitive-bias.pdf

Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93(2), 136-153. Retrieved from http://www.bm.ust.hk/~mark551/readings/T4bR5_kahneman1986.pdf

Miller, D. T., Turnbull, W., & McFarland, C. (1989). When a coincidence is suspicious: The role of mental simulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 581-589. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.57.4.581

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005).  Social cognition: Understanding self and others.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.


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