Politicians, the Representativeness Heuristic and Decision-Making Biases

Sjoerd Stolwijk

Barbara Vis

How likely is this policy to be a success? What is the probability that my party gains seats if we change our policy position? Politicians often must answer such questions and thus make judgements. To facilitate the oftentimes difficult process of judgement, people regularly apply heuristics (cognitive rules of thumb). These heuristics can facilitate judgement, as well as decision making, and are thus often helpful. Using heuristics may, however, also result in decision-making biases that can be detrimental.

In this new Political Behavior-article ‘Politicians, the representativeness heuristic and decision-making biases’, we focus on the representativeness heuristic. People use the representativeness heuristic when they judge a specific situation or event based on the similarity between the situation or event and a general category, whereby similarity can be based on for instance stereotypes or frequent events. An example hereof is when politicians judge a proposal’s likelihood of success by thinking only of successful proposals, thereby overestimating the proposal’s likely success. When politicians think negatively about whole groups of people—say, Muslims—because of the activities of some, they also rely on the representativeness heuristic. By potentially leading to such biases, the representativeness heuristic can negatively influence the functioning of democracy.

We test the effects of the representativeness heuristic by letting Dutch local elected politicians make several assessments (n=211, ≈20% response rate). A student sample (n=260, ≈20% response rate) makes the same assessments. Since politicians’ judgements and subsequent decisions have far-reaching consequences for the lives of many people, it is important to investigate how politicians arrive at them. Our study therefore asks: Do politicians use the representativeness heuristic when making judgements and taking decisions? Some observational studies provided some first evidence that they do, but these studies did not offer a systematic experimental test. At the same time, other literature suggests for example that politicians process information systematically instead of heuristically, because their incentives to “get it right” are much higher.

We adjusted four existing scenarios (i.e. tests) from the literature to fit the contemporary, Dutch context. Overall, our findings support the hypothesis that political participants display the biases related to the representativeness heuristic.

In the first test, we gave a stereotypical description of a feminist women and let the participants rank the probability whether she is more likely to work at a bank, or work at a bank and be active in the feminist movement, or be active in the feminist movement. Since these options overlap, the number of feminists who work at a bank must be smaller than the total number of all bank employees. This number should also be smaller than the total number of feminists (since at least some of them won’t work at a bank). The description given suggested the woman was a feminist, leading many politician participants (and student ones) to make the so-called conjunction-error (believing a stereotypical subset [feminist bankers] is larger than the general set [bankers] from which it is part), see Figure 1.


In a second test, we let one group of participants judge the likelihood of a terrorist attack leading to their town making the headlines and the other random group a general event leading their town to make the headlines. In this case, contrary to our expectations, we did not find politician participants (or student ones) to judge the general event less likely than the more specific event (i.e. the terrorist attack), see Figure 2.

In the third test, we let two random groups of participants assess the likelihood of an earthquake causing casualties in a region known for earthquakes versus the larger category of natural disasters. Figure 3 shows that here again politician participants (and student ones) judged the stereotypical disaster (the earthquake) more likely than the general category of disasters.


 In the final test, we asked two groups of participants separately about the budget they were willing to spend to deal with people who cause a nuisance, giving each group a different number (23 versus 53 people). This tests whether participants take into account the size of the problem or whether they neglect scope. Figure 4 shows that both groups of politician participants allocated the same budget (whereas the student participants did not). This suggests that the politician participants judged the issue based on their generalized feeling towards the subject of people causing a nuisance rather than the size of the problem. Answers to follow-up questions verified that politician participants believed 23 to be a different size of problem than 53 people who cause a nuisance, and that such a difference would require a different budget.

Our study shows that politicians display the biases related to the representativeness heuristic. The representativeness heuristic has wide applicability to many domains of decision making, extending beyond the specific biases we investigate here. If politicians revert to general categories to judge our scenarios, they are likely to do so in many other judgements as well. As the nuisance example shows, this may, for example, lead to inefficient public spending. Overall, our findings increase to our understanding of how politicians process information and how this influences their judgements and decision making.


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