When Less Is More: Evolutionary Origins of the Affect Heuristic
The human mind is built for approximations. When considering the value of a large aggregate of different items, for example, we typically do not summate the many individual values. Instead, we appear to form an immediate impression of the likeability of the option based on the average quality of the full collection, which is easier to evaluate and remember. While useful in many situations, this affect heuristic can lead to apparently irrational decision-making. For example, studies have shown that people are willing to pay more for a small set of high-quality goods than for the same set of high-quality goods with lower-quality items added [e.g. 1]. We explored whether this kind of choice behavior could be seen in other primates. In two experiments, one in the laboratory and one in the field, using two different sets of food items, we found that rhesus monkeys preferred a highly-valued food item alone to the identical item paired with a food of positive but lower value. This finding provides experimental evidence that, under certain conditions, macaque monkeys follow an affect heuristic that can cause them to prefer less food. Conservation of this affect heuristic could account for similar ‘irrational’ biases in humans, and may reflect a more general complexity reduction strategy in which averages, prototypes, or stereotypes represent a set or group.