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What is the Representativeness Heuristic – Causes & Examples

Published by at July 17th, 2023 , Revised On August 31, 2023

Have you ever wondered why we jump to stereotypes rapidly? Why do we stop thinking and processing information to jump to certain conclusions? We tend to associate stereotypes with events rather than logic and probability to make certain decisions. This blog will discuss how the representativeness heuristic impacts our decisions. But before that, let’s understand the psychology of representative heuristics in detail. 

What is the Representativeness Heuristic?

It may be difficult to get the exact representative heuristic definition. Here is how you can define representative heuristic bias. 

‘’The representativeness heuristic is a cognitive bias or mental shortcut that involves making judgments or decisions based on the degree to which something or someone resembles or represents a typical category or prototype’’.

Instead of carefully considering relevant base rates or statistical information, people rely on their mental schemas or stereotypes to assess the likelihood or probability of an event occurring.

In other words, while applying the representativeness heuristic, people evaluate or forecast an event or a person by comparing it to a mental model or stereotype. They infer conclusions based on how well the circumstance or individual meets their preconceived view of what is normal or indicative of that group.

Example of Representativeness Heuristic

Imagine you see someone carrying a stack of books, wearing unkempt hair, and wearing glasses. Because they match your preconceived notion of an academic, you might presume they are professors or highly educated individuals. The fact that many other persons who do not fit this paradigm could also be professors or highly educated may be overlooked by this judgement.

The psychology representative heuristic might result in judgement errors. It can ignore crucial statistical data and be swayed by prejudices or cultural biases. While this representative heuristic is helpful in some circumstances, it can lead to biases and flawed thinking.

What are the Causes of the Representativeness Heuristic?

Now that we have understood what representativeness heuristic is, let’s look at some causes of representative heuristic psychology.  

Several underlying variables and cognitive processes lead to the representativeness heuristic. The following are some of the reasons that influence the representativeness heuristic bias:

Mental Prototypes

People frequently have stereotypes or mental prototypes for different categories or ideas. These prototypes are created due to socialisation, media, cultural influences, and personal experiences. People make judgments or predictions about new situations or people based on comparisons to these mental prototypes.

The Availability Heuristic

It is a different type of cognitive bias that includes estimating an event’s possibility or frequency depending on how quickly examples or instances of it spring to mind. When employing the availability heuristic, individuals frequently depend on quickly remembered or vivid illustrations that match their causing model, causing them to overestimate certain events’ likelihood.

Ignoring Relevant Base Rates

The representativeness heuristic frequently ignores or underweights statistical probability or pertinent base rate information. People mainly rely on the similarity between the event and their mental prototype, events, and possibility, instead of examining the actual probabilities connected with an event.

Simplification of Complex Tasks

The representativeness heuristic is a mental shortcut that enables people to make snap judgements or decisions without expending excessive cognitive effort. People use the representativeness heuristic to simplify complex tasks by depending on their mental prototypes rather than considering all pertinent facts or doing a full analysis.

Cognitive Biases and Stereotypes

Several cognitive biases and preconceptions may impact how the representativeness heuristic is used. These biases impact how people perceive classes and result from social, cultural, or individual factors. Stereotypes can influence people to depend on the representativeness heuristic by making them believe that particular traits or behaviours are typical of a particular group.

What is the Availability Heuristic Vs Representative Heuristic?

To understand the difference between availability and representative heuristic bias, let’s look at the following table.


Heuristic Availability Heuristic Representative Heuristic
Definition Judging the likelihood or frequency of an event based on how easily examples or instances come to mind. Judging the likelihood of an event based on how well it matches a prototype or a representative example.
Decision-making Focus Based on the ease of recalling specific examples or instances from memory. Based on how well an event matches a preconceived stereotype or prototype.
Information Bias Relies on the accessibility of information in memory. Relies on the similarity between an event and a prototype.
Cognitive Process Mental shortcuts that simplify decision-making. Mental shortcuts that simplify decision-making.
Potential Pitfalls Overestimating the likelihood of events that are more vivid or easily recalled. Ignoring base rates or statistical information in favour of subjective judgments based on resemblance.
Examples – Believing that shark attacks are more common than they actually are due to media coverage.

– Overestimating plane crash frequency after a widely publicised incident.

– Assuming a person wearing glasses is highly intelligent.

 – Stereotyping a person as a reckless driver because they drive a sports car.

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Representativeness Heuristic Examples in Everyday Life

The following are some representative heuristic examples. 

Representativeness Heuristic Examples in Profiling and Stereotyping:

  • Assuming a person carrying a briefcase and wearing a suit is a prosperous businessman is a common representativeness heuristic psychology example. 
  • The idea is that people with tattoos and body piercings are rebellious or out of the ordinary.
  • Assuming that older people are more prone to forgetfulness or technological difficulties.

Representativeness Heuristic Examples in Determining Probability

  • Assuming a coin flip will more likely land on tails the next time if heads have come up five timeThen a row.
  • The conviction that a certain sports team has a higher chance of winning the title because they have won a string of winnings assumes that a lottery jackpot winner has a lower chance of doing so again.

The Representativeness Heuristic Example in Sorting Out Professions

  • Assuming that a nurse is more likely to be compassionate and understanding.
  • The notion that all lawyers engage in heated debate and conflict.
  • Assuming that a person in the tech sector needs to be proficient in computer programming.

Representativeness Heuristic Examples in Relationships

  • Believing that a young adult or adolescent must be the only age group who enjoys playing video games.
  • The idea that an extremely introverted person is less likely to enjoy social events like parties is another representative heuristic psychology example.
  • Assuming that people with numerous tattoos must be rebellious or non-conformist.

Frequently Asked Questions

The representativeness heuristic is a mental shortcut where people make judgments or decisions based on how closely an event or person resembles a prototype or stereotype, often disregarding statistical probabilities or base rates of occurrence.

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut where people assess the likelihood or frequency of an event based on how easily relevant examples or instances come to mind. The more accessible or vivid the examples, the more likely people perceive the event to be.

The following are the causes of Representativeness Heuristic:

  • Mental prototypes
  • The availability heuristic
  • Ignoring relevant base rates
  • Simplification of complex tasks
  • Cognitive Biases and Stereotypes

An example of the representativeness heuristic is assuming that someone who wears glasses is highly intelligent based on the stereotype that intelligent individuals often wear glasses, despite lacking any actual evidence or knowledge about their intelligence.

The availability heuristic relies on the ease of recalling specific examples or instances from memory to judge likelihood. In contrast, the representative heuristic involves judging likelihood based on how well an event matches a prototype or stereotype without considering statistical probabilities or base rates of occurrence.

About Owen Ingram

Avatar for Owen IngramIngram is a dissertation specialist. He has a master's degree in data sciences. His research work aims to compare the various types of research methods used among academicians and researchers.