Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

The Affect Heuristic

with 2 comments

In my continued reading of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow I’ve reached the section which talks about the affect heuristic which seems particularly applicable to the technical decisions that we make.

The dominance of conclusions over arguments is most pronounced where emotions are involved. The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world.

The way I’ve seen this heuristic coming into play in the software world is when we do an ‘objective’ overview of the technical tools/options that we could use to solve a particular problem.

We may do this by coming up with a list of advantages/disadvantages for each technology but the way we come up with this will probably be influenced by which of the technologies we prefer.

We’ll therefore place strong emphasis on the advantages of a technology and not think too much of disadvantages or work arounds that we have to implement.

For example if Clojure were the technology in question then as an advocate of Clojure you might focus on the reduced lines of code and benefits of the functional way of programming and place less emphasis on the learning curve that new team members will have to overcome.

Equally if you weren’t a fan of Clojure then you’d do the opposite.

I covered similar ground in a post I wrote a few months ago about compatible opinions where I suggested people used confirmation bias to back up their own opinions.

I think the affect heuristic is slightly different though because it applies even when we think we’re being impartial in our judgement.

When I read things I like to try and think what action I should be taking as a result of learning new information. In this case I think the take away is to be more self aware than usual when talking about things we’re passionate about.

One way to achieve that could be to run our opinions via someone who is knowledgeable in the subject area but is less emotionally involved.

It’d be interesting to see whether this resonates with others as well and how you handle it.

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Written by Mark Needham

June 6th, 2013 at 10:36 pm

  • http://www.markhneedham.com/blog Mark Needham

    @franklinchen:disqus ah, good idea! I remember Dan North using a similar approach to what you suggested where if two people were fighting opposing corners he’d make them switch around and argue the other person’s point. Seemed to work reasonably well

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