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Representativeness Heuristic – Why you jump to conclusions

Representativeness Heuristic – Why you jump to conclusions

Representativeness Heuristic is the tendency to use similarity between objects to categorize them. We use looks, behavior, dressing style and other factors as shortcuts to create stereotypes.

To know how it affects you, try this quick question I have for you. Look at the image below and guess what did the person study in college. You have 3 options to pick from – Arts, Computer Science, or Law.

Representativeness Heuristic

If you guessed computer Computer Science, you fell victim to the representativeness heuristic. Didn’t you associate glasses and a nerdy look with programming? Yes, you did. You made a judgment based on the easy signals such as looks or characteristics.

With one example, you might reject the theory, so let’s try another one. I want you to be honest when you make a decision. Ready?

Bob is tall and lean. Is Bob a musician, an NBA player, or an IT company CEO?

By instinct, you would have associated Bob with NBA even though the other 2 choices are equally likely. Because your mind knows that all NBA players are tall, you apply the same logic in reverse. You assume that a tall person is more likely to be in NBA than in music or leadership.

Representativeness bias is one of the many cognitive flaws of the human brain.

What is the representativeness heuristic?

The representativeness heuristic is the tendency to make an instant decision based on readily available attributes such as looks, behavior, or current known facts. Representativeness bias is the reason why people create stereotypes.

Your brain has categorized people and things into different buckets based on various features. As per psychology, when you find something similar, you jump to a conclusion based on your belief.

You consider a person with curly hair and glasses, a computer programmer. You believe a talkative and funny person will make a great sales executive. You assume a person wearing a suit in a tech park must hold an executive position. Even though no one asks you to make a guess, your mind starts judging automatically.

Representativeness Heuristic - Stereotypes

You may tell no one about it, but you still form an impression based on the first available information all the time. You do not have to blame yourself for such behavior. Mother nature has ingrained such behavior in you to help you survive and go through your daily life more easily.

Imagine you had to process every little piece of information you saw and heard. Your brain would go bonkers trying to make every small decision. To simplify the process, you have developed an intuition or a gut feeling that helps you evaluate in split seconds.

When you were a child, you had no clue about most things you’re aware of today. Over time, you learned more about the world, made decisions, and saw them succeed or fail. Today that has become a part of your nature.

As a kid, you did not know how to react if you had a fever. But if you fall sick today, you will meet a doctor whom you’ve never seen, visit a pharmacist whom you’ve never met and swallow medicine you’ve never heard about.

Your brain knows that you can trust these people. What if you had to decide:

  • is the doctor genuine?
  • is the pharmacist trying to kill me?
  • is the medicine poisonous?

You would face total mayhem within your head every single day.

Though stereotypes seem unfair on the surface, evolution put them in place to make your life simpler. The representativeness heuristic is closely associated with availability heuristic, which is more on making an impulsive decision based on information available in your brain than the surroundings.

Research and experiments

Experiments on the representativeness heuristic were first performed by Nobel prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amor Tversky in the 1970s. They used various types of stereotypes to check for the effect. In one of their tests, they used the following description:

“Tom W. is of high intelligence, although lacking in true creativity. He has a need for order and clarity, and for neat, tidy systems in which every detail fits in the appropriate place. His writing is rather dull and mechanical, occasionally enlivened by corny puns and flashes of the imagination of the sci-fi type. He has a strong drive for competence. He seems to have little feeling or sympathy for other people and does not enjoy interacting with others.”

They provided the above details to test subjects and asked them to guess the possible branch Tom had graduated in. The candidates had 9 options like business administration, computer science, engineering, law, library science, and so on. Most people choose computer science and engineering as the most likely professions.

Computer science was the top guess due to the nerd outlook the description portrays. In fact, the details were written on purpose to fit that stereotype. Engineering took second place due to the context of neat and tidy systems.

We judge so fast, don’t we? The right way to make a guess would be to pick the subject which has the highest students. Yet, we conclude based on stereotypes instead.

Why do we make quick judgments?

Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, explains how we have a System 1 and System 2 within our brain.

System 1 is quick to react and come to a conclusion. Whenever you do not have to think or analyze to act, it’s your system 1 in effect. In simple words, we call it intuition. All your emotions originate from system 1.

System 2 is far slower, but a lot more logical and thoughtful in comparison. If you need time to process your thought, analyze, calculate, consider pros and cons, it’s your system 2 that does the job. All your rational thought and critical thinking are handled by system 2.

Examples of situations where you system 1 handles the action:

  • Adding 10+10
  • Identifying your brother by his looks
  • Holding a casual conversation with your best friend

Examples where system 2 handles the action:

  • Multiplying 23*37
  • Deciding to invest your money
  • Trying to invent a new product and start a business

You cannot always prevent your system 1 from jumping into action. Let’s try a simple activity to see it in effect.

A bat and a ball cost 1.10$ in total. The bat costs 1 dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Did you answer 0.10$? Well, that’s the wrong answer. If the ball costs 0.10$, the bat should cost 1.10$ adding up to 1.20. The right answer is, the ball costs 0.05$ and the bat costs 1.05$.

No matter how intelligent you are, your system 1 will prompt you with the wrong answer unless you have heard the puzzle before. The smarter people suspect something fishy due to the simplicity of the question and pause for a second to confirm the answer. That’s when system 2 takes control and finds the right answer.

The example illustrates how both these systems work together in your brain. System 1 is all your overall knowledge summed up together and ready for access in a fraction of a second. But due to its speed, it is prone to errors. System 2 takes effort on your side and won’t take effect unless you choose too. But when it steps in, you will make a mindful decision.

The brain works the same way even if you’re an expert in a field. The researchers had tested the effect of stereotypes on a sophisticated statistician who had a clear understanding of how intuition works. Yet, he fell victim to the bias as well. Though he realized his mistake in a second, he could not prevent his system 1 from making a poor judgment.

Related article: Anchoring Bias – How you set false benchmarks

Uses of representativeness bias

From the article, you might get the impression that system 1 always makes terrible decisions. But such an assumption is incorrect. You intuitively make the right decisions using system 1.

If I pluck system 1 out of your brain today, you will grow paranoid, analyzing every little thing in detail. You won’t even react in time to danger like moving away from a speeding car or ducking to avoid a flying object. More often than not, system 1 makes the most appropriate choice given the information and the circumstances.

For example:

  • People more smile more tend to be more friendly
  • World-class swimmers are taller people with a specific body, limb, and feet structure. You won’t find a bulky muscular person winning an Olympic medal.
  • People with higher degrees and education tend to read more books

But such statements do not apply in 100% of the cases. You will encounter exceptions once in a while.

Some smiling people might turn out jerks when you talk to them. A bodybuilder who is a freak of nature might win a swimming event, though the chances are close to nil. A person who never went to school might read 200 books a year.

Stereotypes might lead to negative effects like racism, incorrect first impressions, arguments, and whatnot. But such anomalies aren’t a reason enough to stop trusting your system 1. Most stereotypes are truthful, and you cannot make sense of the world without them.

Certain functions are the responsibility of your intuition, and they should remain that way. Without that ability, your behavior would seem like a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Errors of representativeness bias

The problems occur when you do not allow system 2 to validate the judgment of system 1 when required.

Mental judgments:

Here is another question for you:

You are traveling on a train, and you notice a passenger reading a book. Is he a Ph.D. or a graduate?

If you chose Ph.D., you forgot to take numbers into account. There are far more graduates than PhDs. Though better education leads to an increased reading habit, the chances of meeting a graduate are higher. When you resort to stereotypes without considering the volumes, you are neglecting the base rate.

Likewise, the chances of a series of coin tosses landing on HTHHTHTTHT is equally likely as HHHHHTTTTT because both these sequences are a pattern on its own. Yet, your system 1 tells you that HHHHHTTTTT is far more unlikely than the other. 5 heads followed by 5 tails seems unusual, but the other sequence requires a specific pattern too.

Your brain finds patterns in randomness even when they don’t exist due to the clustering illusion.

First impressions:

The previous 2 examples do not create any impact because your judgments aren’t leading to any action or decision. But in many other cases, your incorrect first impressions can lead you to a biased outcome:

  • An interviewer can assume that a well-dressed person will turn into a better employee.
  • A court judge can judge a person based on his untidy beard and unkempt hair
  • A guy may assume he can easily beat his new lady friend in a race without knowing her driving skills

A slight extension of the behavior is seen in behavioral finance where an investor assumes repeated good performance is a guarantee of future results too.

How to avoid representativeness heuristic

The only reason you make poor judgments due to system 1 is when you do not allow system 2 to take control. This usually happens due to a lack of knowledge or laziness.

In most cases, it never occurs to you that you must request the logical analysis of your system 2. Kahneman and Tversky had experimented by asking a set of students to smile and another to frown.

Their results showed that frowning makes the system 2 alert and more cautious about the base rates. Negative emotions lead to more thought before making a call.

However, you cannot put up a sad face every time you have to make a thoughtful decision. The bias does not have a perfect solution as such, but awareness in itself can help you kick in your system 2.

Here are 2 methods you can use to avoid the effect of the representativeness heuristic.

1. Use the 2-second rule:

The 2-second rule is about pausing for a second before taking any action. Though you cannot make path-breaking decisions in a second, the small gap can help trigger your system 2 to make a better decision than your impulsive system 1.

Here is how you can use the rule. You receive information from your senses. You might see something, hear words that make your blood boil with anger, or encounter a new opportunity which makes your eyes sparkle.

Triggered by what you receive, you spring into action. You might scream abusive words or get ready for a fistfight. I am not only talking about cases of anger. You could react to an exciting piece of news and try to grab what showed up without enough thought. Your belief convinces you that you’re doing the right thing.

All you need to do after receiving information is pause for a moment to gather your thoughts.

What you do during the pause depends on the situation and your personality. Here are 2 options to try out during your pause:

  • Ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing
  • Think of the consequences of your actions

Checking for consequences yields better results in most cases. But irrespective of how you spend those 2 seconds, you will avoid many mistakes you would have otherwise committed without the pause.

2. Evaluate the base rate and the completeness of the information:

Before making a decision, take into account the base rate of the circumstances involved. A vague stereotype seems more likely compared to a plain vanilla description.

For example, let’s say I show you a picture of a person holding a suitcase full of money. You must guess if

  1. he is a banker or
  2. a young wall street banker who started investing in stock from age 11

Most people will choose the second option because it seems fancy. A more sensible guess is option 1 because the smart young wall street banker is still a banker. He is already included in the first option, but your brain prefers the flavored description.

Similarly, investing in cryptocurrency might seem like a great return on money because you hear about people who made millions. But your information is not complete enough to justify your decision. Your real evidence lies in gathering data from both sides. You must know how many people made money and how many lost money.

Unfortunately, you will never hear stories about people who failed due to survivorship bias.

Related article: Availability Heuristic – Why you make decisions based on easily available information


Our first impressions of any information are both useful and deceptive. Neither can you live without them, nor can you always trust them at face value.

Representativeness bias helps us make decisions quickly. But it also overlooks various factors that aren’t obvious to spot. You cannot wash the bias clean, but when you’re making an important decision next time, be aware that your system 1 can play tricks on you.

representativeness heuristic jumping to conclusion

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