Attribute substitution is a situation where, when we are faced with a computationally difficult decision, we will often substitute a more easily calculated decision in it’s place and answer that instead, without even realizing that we did this.
This is only one part of the larger approach1 to conserving energy that our brain uses when faced with decisions, but it’s a part that is seen repeatedly so it’s worth calling out.
Attribute substitution will occur when three specific conditions are satisfied2
- “the target attribute is relatively inaccessible”
- “a semantically and associatively related attribute is highly accessible”
- “the substitution of the heuristic attribute in the judgment is not rejected by the critical operations of System 2.”
Let’s look at a couple of examples, to see what that really means.
Ball and Bat problem
Consider this problem: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”
Most people will answer 10 cents, which is wrong.
This problem satisfies all the criteria above. The real solution is complex, while there’s a simpler problem of chunking that we can substitute. Finally, our System 1 is willing to go along with the simple answer. And so attribute substitution happens and we very quickly get the wrong answer.
“The surprisingly high rate of errors in this easy problem illustrates how lightly System 2 monitors the output of System 1: people are not accustomed to thinking hard, and are often content to trust a plausible judgment that quickly comes to mind.”2
In the Stroop test, we’re given a series of written colours, some of which are written in the colour that’s spelled out and some that aren’t. For example, we might see the word RED written in red and the word BLUE written in blue. Then we might see YELLOW written in green. When the word and the colour it’s written in are different then this is a computationally complex problem and lends itself well to what we’re doing.
Interestingly, our System 2 tends to catch our errors here and so it’s more common that people get correct answers but slow down dramatically as their System 2 keeps overriding System 1. Try it yourself here.
So in the case of the Stroop test, we tend not to get attribute substitution because we fail the third criteria.
When meeting someone for the first time, determining their intelligence or character is a complex problem while noting the colour of their skin or physical characteristics are not3. Attribute substitution causes us to make many poor “first impressions” and will take time to overcome.
Since System 2 is fairly slow, it can be overwhelmed with time pressure. For this reason, we are more likely to see attribute substitution when time pressure is present.
On the other hand, we can reduce the incidence of attribute substitution by alerting people to the possibility that their judgement can be contaminated.
“For example, sunny or rainy weather typically affects reports of well-being, but Schwarz and Clore (1983) found that merely asking respondents about the weather just before the well-being question eliminates the effect – apparently by reminding respondents that their current mood (a candidate heuristic attribute) is influenced by a factor (current weather) that is obviously irrelevant to the requested target attribute (overall well-being).”2
Attribute substitution is an ongoing phenomena that happens all the time. It’s not necessarily bad, as it allows us to be far more efficient with our energy usage. However, it does have the potential to result in very poor decisions, and so we should be aware of it.
Shah, A. K., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). Heuristics made easy: An effort-reduction framework. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 207–222. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.2.207 ↩
Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 49–81). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511808098.004 ↩ ↩2 ↩3