What is the concept of Familiarity Heuristic and how does it affect decision making?

The familiarity heuristic is a cognitive bias that affects decision making by leading individuals to rely on familiar information and experiences rather than considering new or unfamiliar information. This heuristic is based on the idea that people tend to feel more comfortable and confident in decisions that involve familiar situations or objects. While this heuristic can be beneficial in some cases, it can also lead to errors in judgement and decision making. In this essay, we will explore the concept of familiarity heuristic, its effects on decision making, and how it can influence our perceptions and choices in various aspects of life.

In psychology, a mental heuristic is a rule of thumb in which current behavior is judged to be correct based on how similar it is to past behavior and its outcomes. Individuals assume that the circumstances underlying the past behavior still hold true for the present situation and that the past behavior thus can be correctly applied to the new situation. The familiarity heuristic was developed based on the discovery of the availability heuristic by Tversky and Kahneman. It can be applied to various situations that individuals experience in real life when these situations appear similar to previous situations, especially if the individuals are experiencing a high cognitive load. This heuristic is useful in most situations and can be applied to many fields of knowledge including medicine, psychology, sports, marketing, outdoor activities, and consumer choices.


Definition and history

The familiarity heuristic stems from the availability heuristic which was studied by Tversky and Kahneman. The availability heuristic suggests that the likelihood of events is estimated based on how many examples of such events come to mind. Thus the familiarity heuristic shows how “bias of availability is related to the ease of recall.”

Tversky and Kahneman created an experiment in order to test this heuristic. They devised four lists of 39 names. Each list contained 19 female names and 20 male names. Half of the lists had famous female names, and the other half had famous male names. They showed the lists to two test groups. The first group was shown a list and asked to recall as many names as possible. The second group was shown a list and asked to determine if there were more female or more male names. The subjects who heard the list with famous female names said there were more female names than there were male names. Similarly, the subjects who heard the list with famous male names recalled more male names than female names. Thus the familiarity heuristic is defined as “judging events as more frequent or important because they are more familiar in memory.”

The familiarity heuristic is based on using schemas or past actions as a scaffold for behavior in a new (yet familiar) situation. This is useful because it saves time for the subject who is trying to figure out the appropriate behavior for a situation they have experienced before. Individuals automatically assume that their previous behavior will yield the same results when a similar situation arises. This technique is typically useful. However, certain behaviors can be inappropriate when the situation is different from the time before.


Important research

Recent studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate that people use different areas of the brain when reasoning about familiar and unfamiliar situations. This holds true over different kinds of reasoning problems. Familiar situations are processed in a system involving the frontal and temporal lobes whereas unfamiliar situations are processed in the frontal and parietal lobes. These two similar but dissociated processes provide a biological explanation for the differences between heuristic reasoning and formal logic.

Monin (2004) showed that familiarity of human faces is based on attractiveness. In this study Monin showed his subjects pictures of faces. The subjects were asked to rate how familiar the face was or was not using visual cues. The visual cues were choosing a picture of a butterfly (attractive) when the subject thought the face was familiar, and choosing a picture of a rat (unattractive) when the subject did not find the face familiar. The result of this study was that the subjects were more familiar when the face was attractive regardless of prior exposure to the picture (or person) itself. This has been referred to as the warm glow effect. The warm glow effect states that positive stimuli seem more familiar because of the positive emotions they evoke in us.



Avalanche victims

To see whether or not familiarity would hinder subjects, McCammon (2004) looked at subjects that had been trapped in an avalanche (211 subjects) and those that had not (56 subjects). In most cases familiarity aided the subjects when navigating the terrain. Subjects that were familiar with the terrain took more risks. The risks typically helped the subjects, but there were a couple of situations where the risks hindered the subjects.


Hindsight bias

The hindsight bias states that people perceive certain events to be more predictable after the fact than they seemed before they had occurred. People believe that a disaster could have been avoided when they are actually misattributing familiar knowledge to a time before it was available.



The familiarity heuristic increases the likelihood that customers will repeatedly buy products of the same brand. This concept is known as brand familiarity in consumer behavior. Due to the familiarity heuristic, the customers have the rule of thumb that their past behavior of buying this specific brand’s product was most likely correct and should be repeated. A study examining the choice of various models of microwave ovens based on the subjects’ familiarity with them showed that high familiarity with the features of microwave ovens allowed for a faster and more confident choice.

This effect can also have important implications for medical decision making. Lay people tend to make health decisions that are based on familiarity and availability as opposed to factual knowledge about diseases. This means that they are more likely to take actions and pursue treatment options that have worked in the past, whether they are effective in the current situation or not. This also extends to treatments the patient has not used before but is familiar with. For example, a lay person may request a name-brand medication because they have heard of it before, even though a generic drug may be essentially the same but less expensive. Medical professionals are much more likely to use scientific facts to prescribe treatments.


Current criticisms

There is some criticism of the concept of familiarity heuristic. It mainly focuses on the point that past behavior does influence present behavior but that this is based on a different cognitive model than the familiarity heuristic. One study examining multiple possible mechanisms of how previous behavior influences present behavior found little support for the familiarity heuristic. The study showed that the influence of past behavior on a present one decreased when subjects were distracted. However, in order for a heuristic to be valid, its effect should be more prevalent when individuals are distracted and their cognitive capacity is highly strained. This result indicates that it is unlikely that a familiarity heuristic was applied during the experiment.

Another limit of familiarity heuristic according to a study by Quellette and Wood is that it might not always be applicable. This study showed that the familiarity heuristic might only occur in situations where the target behavior is habitual and occurs in a stable context within the situation. Thus, the familiarity heuristic could be limited to habits and behaviors in routine situations.

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