Attribute substitution is also known as substitution bias. This is another cognitive bias that is supposed to make a decision-making process more manageable.

Attribute substitution is a psychological process in which one or more attributes influence a person’s judgment of a person or event.

It occurs when a person has to judge a target attribute that is hard to comprehend and instead substitutes it with a heuristic attribute that is easier to comprehend.

worried man

When someone attempts to respond to a challenging issue, they may inadvertently reply to a related yet distinct question. This explains why people may be unaware of their own cognitive biases and how preconceptions endure even after the subject is informed of them.

This is also why human judgments frequently fail to demonstrate a regression toward the mean which means that most people should place their estimates around average.

The attribute substitution theory

The theory combines multiple separate explanations of cognitive biases in terms of heuristics. It explains why individuals may be unaware of their own biases and why attitudes and behavior persist regardless of awareness.

In a 1974 paper, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman stated that various cognitive biases (incorrect judgments and decisions) were explainable in terms of a few heuristics (information-processing shortcuts), such as availability and representativeness.

We have a dedicated article on the availability effect if you want to know more.

In 1975, Stanley Smith Stevens proposed that the strength of a stimulus is represented neurally so that it is independent of modality. Kahneman and Frederick went on to claim that the target attribute and heuristic attribute might not be related.

In a 2002 revision of the theory, Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick proposed that attribute substitution is a process underlying several cognitive biases.

Conditions for attribute substitution

In their revision, Kahneman and Frederick described three conditions for attribute substitution:

  1. The target attribute is inaccessible. When answering questions about facts (“What is your birthday?”) or about the current experience (“Do you feel thirsty now?), substitution doesn’t occur. 
  2. An attribute is highly accessible. The attribute could be primed due to the priming effect or because it was evaluated automatically. Someone who has been considering their love life might say they are happy with their love life rather than answer the question if they have been pondering their love life.
  3. The reflective system does not correct the substitution. For example, when asked to solve the famous math problem, described in Kahneman’s book, “A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” people incorrectly, but quickly, answer $0.10. Attribute substitution explains it as follows: people just parse the sum of $1.10 into a large amount and a small amount instead of calculating the sum because it’s easier.

Implications of attribute substitution

Stereotypes

Stereotypes can be a source of heuristic attributes. For example, in a one-on-one meeting with a stranger, determining their intellect is more complex than assessing their race. As a result, if the subject has a preconceived notion that people’s intelligence depends on the color of their skin, racial characteristics could suffice as a proxy for intangibles like wit and wisdom.

The pre-conscious, intuitive quality of attribute substitution explains how prejudice can influence people. Even though they think they are conducting an honest and unbiased evaluation of the other person’s intellect.

Morality and fairness

Being challenged by a new, complex problem in moral issues, people search for a more familiar, related problem from the past. Then, they apply its solution as the solution to the more complicated situation.

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On the other hand, when individuals are asked their viewpoints on a subject, the views of trusted authority figures might be heuristic attributes.

Emotions can also provide heuristic attributes. People’s moral views on sensitive issues like sex and human cloning, for example, might be influenced by feelings such as hatred rather than logic.

Estimating insurance risk

According to Kahneman, some Americans were given insurance against their death in a terrorist attack. At the same time, on a trip to Europe, Researchers offered another group insurance that would cover the death of any sort. Although the second group was ready to pay extra even though “death of any kind” includes “death in a terrorist attack”.

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According to Kahneman, the dread factor appears to be being supplanted by a calculation of the overall hazards of traveling. The fear of terrorism was more prominent than a general fear of dying on a foreign journey for these people.

Conclusion

Cognitive biases, such as heuristics, provide for quick and easy judgments about the world. They can be beneficial, but they often lead to errors in judgments. Kahneman and Frederick proposed that attribute substitution is a process underlying several heuristics. Attribute substitution occurs when people judge the target attribute depending on an accessible but less appropriate substitute attribute. The implications of attribute substitution include stereotypes, morality and fairness, and insurance risk.

If you want to learn more about cognitive biases and how to use them in marketing, check out our articles about the availability effect, the anchoring effect, and the framing effect.

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Experienced psychologist and T-shaped marketer with a deep love for content marketing and conversion copywriting. Privately a big fan of travel, coffee, and jazz!

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