Representativeness Heuristic: Examples & Definition

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  • 0:01 Making Decisions
  • 1:02 Definition of…
  • 1:57 Examples
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn to define the representativeness heuristic and apply it to real-world examples. Following this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Making Decisions

Every day, we are faced with countless choices and decisions. Some are as simple as deciding what to eat for breakfast. Others can be a bit more challenging, such as which college to attend.

We all know that decision-making is important, but how do we make decisions? Should you weigh all the possible outcomes before deciding to ensure that the best decision is made? Do you trust past experiences to guide you so that you can make quick decisions? Or maybe you look to guidance of others for support?

One way in which we make decisions is via a process called heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb. When we use heuristics, we use past experiences to make quick decisions. The advantage of heuristics is their speed, but the downside is that they may result in inaccurate decisions.

Multiple types of decision-making heuristics exist. This lesson will focus on one specific type, the representativeness heuristic.

Definition of Representativeness

First described by psychologists Tversky and Kahneman in the 1970s, the representativeness heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that employs the use of past experiences to guide the decision-making process. The word 'representativeness' is in reference to the notion that when we are confronted with a new experience and need to make a judgment or decision about that situation, our brains automatically rely on past experiences and mental representations seemingly similar to this new situation in an effort to guide our judgments and decisions.

Naturally, relying on past experiences can be beneficial and allow for quick conclusions to be reached, but the cost of being able to make quick decisions is oftentimes accuracy. The fact that a mental representation, which can be compared to a new situation, exists in your memory does not have any bearing on how likely that representation is to occur in reality.


Let's look at a couple of real-world examples of the representativeness heuristic in action. Imagine that you were shown a picture of two people, person A and person B. Person A is well dressed, wearing a fancy watch, and has a briefcase in his hand. Person B is wearing jeans and flip-flops, looks as if he just woke up, and is busy texting on his cell phone. If you were asked to predict who is more likely to show up on time for the local monthly Lion's Club eyeglasses donation meeting, who would you choose?

On the surface, most people would choose person A because based on past experiences, a part of the mental representation of person A is one that includes being on time for meetings.

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