How do people judge risks: availability heuristic, affect heuristic, or both?

J Exp Psychol Appl. 2012 Sep;18(3):314-30. doi: 10.1037/a0028279. Epub 2012 May 7.


How does the public reckon which risks to be concerned about? The availability heuristic and the affect heuristic are key accounts of how laypeople judge risks. Yet, these two accounts have never been systematically tested against each other, nor have their predictive powers been examined across different measures of the public's risk perception. In two studies, we gauged risk perception in student samples by employing three measures (frequency, value of a statistical life, and perceived risk) and by using a homogeneous (cancer) and a classic set of heterogeneous causes of death. Based on these judgments of risk, we tested precise models of the availability heuristic and the affect heuristic and different definitions of availability and affect. Overall, availability-by-recall, a heuristic that exploits people's direct experience of occurrences of risks in their social network, conformed to people's responses best. We also found direct experience to carry a high degree of ecological validity (and one that clearly surpasses that of affective information). However, the relative impact of affective information (as compared to availability) proved more pronounced in value-of-a-statistical-life and perceived-risk judgments than in risk-frequency judgments. Encounters with risks in the media, in contrast, played a negligible role in people's judgments. Going beyond the assumption of exclusive reliance on either availability or affect, we also found evidence for mechanisms that combine both, either sequentially or in a composite fashion. We conclude with a discussion of policy implications of our results, including how to foster people's risk calibration and the success of education campaigns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Perception
  • Risk
  • Risk Assessment / methods*