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GuidesResearch methodsUnderstanding the representativeness heuristic: A deep dive

Understanding the representativeness heuristic: A deep dive

Last updated

21 September 2023


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Heuristics are quick, intuitive mental shortcuts that help in decision-making when there is limited information. People use heuristics to make on-the-spot judgments or choices.

The representative heuristic, also known as the representativeness heuristic, is one example.

Here's a detailed exploration of the representative heuristic, including how it influences our judgments and how to avoid its pitfalls to make more rational decisions.

What is the representativeness heuristic?

The representativeness heuristic refers to a cognitive bias whereby people tend to judge the likelihood that an object belongs to a particular category based on the similarity of the object to the category’s typical features. Decisions are based on stereotypes and prototypes, as people mentally sort animals, events, places, and other people based on perceived similarity.

Like other types of mental shortcuts, representative heuristics can help cut down the time and effort required to make reasonably good judgments. However, it can also lead you astray since you only pay attention to a subset of information, i.e., similarity.

History and discovery

The roots of the representativeness heuristic can be traced back to the pioneering work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. The two psychologists, regarded by many as the fathers of behavioral economics, performed several experiments in the 1970s, and most of their findings are available in the book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1974).

In one experiment, Kahneman and Tversky gave participants a brief description of Tom, a fictional grad student. The description noted characteristics such as being socially awkward, competent, self-centered, detail-oriented, and organized. Participants were to determine the student's college major. Most participants predicted the student was taking engineering, even though, given the small number of engineering students in the college where the psychologists conducted the study, there were low statistical chances of Tom being an engineering major. Their answer was purely based on representativeness.

Why does the representativeness heuristic occur?

Some of the reasons people draw on the representativeness heuristic to make judgments include:


The human brain tries to save time and effort as it navigates a complex world. It uses simple rules of thumb and strategies to assess information and produce quick responses in daily tasks. 

Your brain is designed to make thousands of distinct decisions every day while using energy optimally. So, it can be argued that human reliance on the representativeness heuristic is due to limited cognitive resources. Heuristics produce fairly good responses, but people often oversimplify reality due to these shortcuts.

Categories and mental prototypes

The human environment presents us with vast amounts of information, and categorization helps organize and interpret this information. Our brain categorizes different things we see and interact with based on prototypes of what the average member of the category looks like. For instance, people can recognize a currency note when they see one, even if they don't know which country it belongs to. Intuitively, a person will know it may have value.

The good side of representativeness heuristics is that, after interacting with objects, people, or animals, a person relies on their knowledge of the category to determine what to do. If categorization didn’t exist, we would have to learn about every encounter from scratch. That would be impractical due to limitations in our cognitive capacity.

On the flip side, the representativeness heuristic can lead to cognitive bias with negative outcomes. People construct categories around certain prototypes that represent the typical members of the category, and since these prototypes serve as the basis of comparison, they influence how people perceive members of a category.

Overemphasizing similarity

The representativeness heuristic depends heavily on similarity and stereotypes, tending to overlook statistical base rates or objective probabilities. For example, a project leader may recognize and promote an employee who fits their mental prototype of a dedicated worker—arrives at the office early, dresses professionally, and has a reserved and serious demeanor—over another who dresses casually and has an outgoing personality, overlooking the fact that both are equally productive.

Why it matters

Representation helps people quickly identify and interpret things around them. Rather than starting from scratch every time we come across a brand-new object, we can draw upon our existing mental representations of similar objects or concepts to make sense of it.

However, depending on strict categorization alone can cause problems. Some unique things or situations can fall completely outside categories. Also, many categories have incorrect associations, which may lead to wrong assumptions. We must learn to do more than blindly trust categories when making decisions or predictions.

The representativeness heuristic and AI

Some psychological heuristics, including the representativeness heuristic, have found applications in AI algorithms, particularly in the field of machine learning and cognitive computing. For example, deploying it in a neural network would help prevent AI bias. The process involves creating a reference agent, i.e., a 'representative state' of the model representing the ideal state of the algorithm. The agent can be programmed to check the reference agent when it produces a low confidence score for some of its results. These efforts can reduce the amount of bias in decisions made by neural networks.

Today, the representativeness heuristic is being used alongside AI and machine learning (ML) to optimize categorization by relying on statistical patterns and base rates to sort information. For example, many healthcare systems are using AI technology to help diagnose patients by comparing medical images to others in their datasets.

This has its challenges, a key one being physicians drawing on the representativeness heuristics when interpreting the outputs. Healthcare providers may tend to believe AI's diagnosis if the symptoms are similar to an illness's prototypical description and dismiss those that seem unusual, even though the AI can access more unusual or rare presentations of symptoms in their datasets than medical providers may have come across in their profession.

Examples of representativeness heuristic

The representativeness heuristic can pop up in the following situations:

Medical diagnosis

Medical facilities often operate under significant time pressure, and sometimes healthcare providers may depend on a representativeness heuristic to make a quick diagnosis before later investigating further.

Take, for example, a patient with concerns about recent unintended weight gain. Their healthcare provider may simply advise they just need to be more physically active and watch their diet. While this, at face value, may be sound medical advice, if no tests were done and no further diagnosis was considered, it may have been influenced by the stereotype that excessive weight results from being physically inactive and unhealthy eating habits. Unintentional weight gain could also result from adrenal disease, kidney disease, depression, hormonal imbalance, and thyroid disease.

Let's look at another scenario. A young patient visits a hospital complaining of numbness in their arm that began during a workout. The doctor may first think this results from injuries during the workout and start by examining the arm’s movement, checking for torn tendons, or even scheduling their patient for an X-ray examination. These decisions make sense, considering the patient’s physical state and the fact they were at the gym when the problem started. However, the patient might not have mentioned they drank a couple of energy drinks and took a supplement that may be affecting the cardiovascular system.

Criminal investigations

The representativeness heuristic can impact criminal investigations, sometimes affecting the fairness of the process. For example, investigators may unintentionally use the representativeness heuristic when profiling suspects. They might focus on people who fit the stereotype of what they believe a typical criminal looks like based on factors such as age, gender, race, or socioeconomic background. As a result, they may harass innocent people while the wrongdoer gets away.

Another unintended result of the representativeness heuristic is confirmation bias. Investigators may interpret evidence in a way that confirms their initial stereotype, potentially overlooking crucial evidence or alternative leads. Jurors may also be inclined to reach a guilty verdict if a defendant matches their idea of a criminal, even if the evidence is insufficient.

Choosing stocks

People are repeatedly advised to conduct thorough research before investing in any stock, but unfortunately, many fall into the trap of the representativeness heuristic. For example, people often follow popular investment trends and assume that if many others are doing it, it must be a good investment.

Others might favor stocks that have performed well in the past, especially in industries or sectors that have been booming recently. However, past success does not guarantee sustained growth, and this decision should be informed by research.

Many people may also assume that investing in well-known companies and big brands is safer. After all, they have existed for decades and seem to be expanding every year. While this may not be necessarily wrong, investors may overlook smaller or upcoming companies with strong growth potential.

Product packaging

Marketers use various techniques from cognitive psychology to boost sales. They may package a product to resemble a similar one by their biggest competitor and depend on the representativeness heuristic to attract customers. That, combined with setting a lower price, is usually enough to entice customers to purchase the product.

Marketing professionals know packaging that closely resembles the typical design associated with top-performing brands can lead consumers to perceive the product as high quality.

How to avoid the representativeness heuristic

Here are a few strategies to avoid making inaccurate decisions based on generalizations and stereotypes:

Mind your mental prototypes

Since the representativeness heuristic can cause biased thinking and judgmental errors, you should be aware of the tendency to depend on stereotypes and generalizations when making judgments. Have an open mind when approaching each situation and avoid using surface-level similarities to jump to conclusions.

Gather base-rate information

Another way to avoid falling into the cognitive trap of representativeness heuristics is by taking into account all relevant information. Avoid gathering details of the particular example you are considering and instead collect information about the frequency of occurrence of certain events in general. It can help avoid snap judgments based solely on similarity and the representativeness heuristic.

Incorporate statistical thinking

Use probability and logic when making judgments instead of depending solely on similarity. Learn to ask for data or facts to support your choices when making business and financial decisions. Data can help avoid representativeness heuristics. However, be careful not to cherry-pick data that suits your bias.

Seek out diverse perspectives

Getting exposed to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives can help you reduce dependence on prototypes and stereotypes. Seeking out diverse opinions and actively trying to understand different perspectives can help challenge your assumptions.

Slow down

Making quick, snap judgments without carefully considering all available information can easily lead to the representativeness heuristic. Taking time before deciding will help you go through all the relevant information available.

The lowdown

Representativeness heuristic is a mental shortcut that helps make decisions about unfamiliar people or things. However, it has its pros and cons. While it sometimes provides a fast and efficient way to make judgments and decisions, it can also result in overlooking valuable details and lead you astray. Fortunately, it is possible to avoid the representativeness heuristic through strategies such as logical and statistical thinking and taking your time before making a decision. You can also ask others to point out instances where you might be heavily drawing on the representativeness heuristic to help overcome this cognitive bias.


What is the difference between the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic?

Availability heuristics is when people make decisions based on memory of the frequency of an occurrence, while representativeness heuristics refers to making decisions based on preconceived notions and stereotypes.

What causes the representativeness heuristic?

Reliance on the representativeness heuristic results from the urge to make quick decisions with inadequate information and the tendency towards wanting to categorize things. Unfortunately, relying too much on the representativeness heuristic can be damaging since it is vulnerable to inaccuracy and representative bias.

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