What Is the Representativeness Heuristic?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents
representativeness heuristic

Verywell / Cindy Chung

When faced with uncertainty while trying to make a decision, people often rely on a mental shortcut known as the representativeness heuristic. It involves making judgments by comparing things to concepts we already have in mind.

While this shortcut can speed up the decision-making process, it can also lead to poor choices and stereotypes. Take a closer look at what the representativeness heuristic is and how it works.

What Is the Representativeness Heuristic?

The representativeness heuristic involves estimating the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype that already exists in our minds. This prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. The problem with this is that people often overestimate the similarity between the two things they are comparing.

When making decisions or judgments, we often use mental shortcuts or "rules of thumb" known as heuristics. For every decision, we don't always have the time or resources to compare all the information before we make a choice, so we use heuristics to help us reach decisions quickly and efficiently.

Sometimes these mental shortcuts can be helpful, but in other cases, they can lead to errors or cognitive biases.

Discovery

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman during the 1970s. Like other heuristics, making judgments based on representativeness is intended to work as a type of mental shortcut, allowing us to make decisions quickly. However, it can also lead to errors.

In their classic experiment, Tversky and Kahneman gave participants a description of a person named Tom, who was orderly, detail-oriented, competent, self-centered, with a strong moral sense. Participants were then asked to determine Tom's college major.

What the researchers found was that representativeness led people to believe that Tom was an engineering major. This was despite the fact that there was a relatively small number of engineering students at the school where the study was conducted.

In 2002, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his research on factors that affect judgment and decision-making in the face of uncertainty.

Why It Happens

There are a number of different factors that can play a role in the use of representativeness when making judgments. Some of these include:

  • Conserving limited cognitive resources: Our cognitive resources are limited and we have thousands of decisions to make every day. We rely on heuristics because they allow us to conserve mental resources and still make decisions quickly and efficiently.
  • Using categories and prototypes to make choices: Making decisions based on representativeness involves comparing an object or situation to the schemas, or mental prototypes, that we already have in mind. Such schemas are based on past learning, but can also change as a result of new learning. If an existing schema doesn't adequately account for the current situation, it can lead to poor judgments.
  • Overestimating the importance of similarity: When we make decisions based on representativeness, we may be likely to make more errors by overestimating the similarity of a situation. Just because an event or object is representative does not mean that what we've experienced before is likely to happen again.

Examples

It can be helpful to examine a few examples of how the representativeness heuristic works in real life. For example

  • Work: The heuristic can affect decisions made in the workplace. In one study, for example, researchers found that managers made biased decisions more than 50% of the time, many of which were based on representativeness.
  • Social relationships: Representativeness can affect the judgments we make when meeting new people. It may lead us to form inaccurate impressions of others, such as misjudging a new acquaintance or blind date.
  • Political choices: This heuristic can also play a role in how people vote and the candidates they support. For example, a person might support a political candidate because they fit the mental image of someone they think is a great leader without really learning about that person's platform.

Why It Matters

The representativeness heuristic is pervasive and can play a major role in many real-life decisions and judgments. In many cases, this can lead to poor judgments that can have serious consequences. 

  • Criminal justice: Jurors may make judgments about guilt based on how closely a defendant matches their prototype of a "guilty" suspect or how well the crime represents a certain crime category. For example, a person accused of abducting a child for ransom may be more likely to be viewed as guilty than someone accused of kidnapping an adult for no ransom.
  • Healthcare: Doctors and healthcare professionals may make diagnostic and treatment decisions based on how well a patient and their symptoms match an existing prototype. Unfortunately, this can lead professionals to overestimate similarity and to ignore other relevant information.
  • Interpersonal perceptions: This heuristic can also play a role in the assessments we make about other people. We tend to develop ideas about how people in certain roles should behave. A farmer, for example, might be seen as hard-working, outdoorsy, and tough. A librarian, on the other hand, might be viewed as being quiet, organized, and reserved.
  • Stereotypes: Because people are so prone to drawing on prototypes to guide decisions, it can also lead to problems such as prejudice. The prototypes people hold can become stereotypes, which lead people to make prejudiced judgments of other people. Such stereotypes can also lead to systemic discrimination against different groups of people.

How to Avoid

The representativeness heuristic isn't easy to avoid, but there are some things that you can do to help minimize its effects. This can help you make more accurate judgments in your day-to-day life. Things you can do include:

  • Becoming more aware of this tendency: Kahneman has found that when people become aware that they are using the representativeness heuristic, they are often able to correct themselves and make more accurate judgments.
  • Reflecting on your judgments to check for bias: As you are making decisions about people or events, spend a few moments thinking about how bias might be affecting your choices.
  • Applying logic to problems: As you solve problems, focus on thinking through them logically. Learning more about critical thinking skills and logical fallacies can also be helpful.
  • Asking others for feedback: It can be difficult to spot the use of representativeness in your own thinking, so it can sometimes be helpful to ask other people for feedback. Explain your thinking and ask them to check for possible biases.

A Word From Verywell

The representativeness heuristic is just one type of mental shortcut that allows us to make decisions quickly in the face of uncertainty. While this can lead to quick thinking, it can also lead us to ignore factors that also play a role in shaping events.

Fortunately, being aware of this bias and actively trying to avoid it can help. The next time you are trying to make a decision, consider the way in which the representative heuristic might play a role in your thinking.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kahneman D, Tversky A. On the psychology of prediction. Psychological Review. 1973;80(4):237-251. doi:10.1037/h0034747

  2. Smith D. Psychologist wins Nobel prize. Monitor on Psychology. 2002;33(11):22.

  3. AlKhars M, Evangelopoulos N, Pavur R, Kulkarni S. Cognitive biases resulting from the representativeness heuristic in operations management: an experimental investigationPsychol Res Behav Manag. 2019;12:263-276. Published 2019 Apr 10. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S193092

  4. Stolwijk S. The representativeness heuristic in political decision making. In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Oxford University Press; 2019. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.981

  5. Payne VL, Crowley RS. Assessing the use of cognitive heuristic representativeness in clinical reasoningAMIA Annu Symp Proc. 2008;2008:571-575.

  6. Hinton, P. Implicit stereotypes and the predictive brain: cognition and culture in “biased” person perception. Palgrave Commu. 2017;3:17086. doi:10.1057/palcomms.2017.86

  7. Kahneman D. A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist. 2003;58(9):697-720. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.9.697