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The Secret Switch-up: How Attribute Substitution Leads to Bad Decisions

What do you think of Will Smith? Few people know much about him personally but after he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, many people quickly formed an opinion of him. Did you?

If so, you experienced the cognitive bias known as attribute substitution. Our automatic “lizard” brain system switches one attribute about a person, thing or situation with another. That usually happens when the original attribute is difficult to access or formulate so we replace it with something that is more accessible.

And we aren’t even aware we are doing it.

Think about the Will Smith situation. To know what kind of person someone is, you would need to get to know them and observe their behavior over time. That can be difficult and time consuming - maybe even impossible. But forming an opinion of someone based on a single event is much easier, so we substitute actual knowledge of the person with our opinion of a single act or event (the slap). Quick and easy, but not very reliable.

The bigger problem is that our reflective and thoughtful brain system fails to recognize the substitution.

Other types of substitution

Other examples include using stereotypes to assess individuals, substituting emotion for a reasoned risk assessment, or relying on an aphorism to explain or address a complex situation (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).

Another example is when someone is asked a difficult question but they answer a different question because that one is easier and takes less energy to formulate and express.

Perceptual attribute substitution can occur when your visual system is involved. Optical illusion creators and magicians often take advantage of the attribute substitution effect to create the seemingly impossible. When you see a magician show a card and deal it to the table, you subconsciously assume the card he showed was the card he dealt. That seems to be what he is doing.

However, by simply paying closer attention (exerting a little more energy) you would avoid substituting an expectation for the actual action and you would easily notice that he dealt a different card. Of course, that small amount of extra thinking would dispel the magical illusion, but magicians know that very few people will be aware they even made the substitution so they don’t engage their thinking system.

This is one of many heuristics or mental shortcuts our brains use to help us navigate our complex environment. Our brain is built to conserve energy whenever possible, and thinking is hard. So if an easier to assess option is available, we run with it - even if it is irrelevant or inaccurate.

Countering the effect

To reduce this inclination to make invalid substitutions, we need to energize our reflective and analytical brain system. When feasible we should avoid forming opinions or conclusions without considering whether we are applying the correct criteria. We may be using information that is easily accessible but not accurate or credible.

Doing that extra step takes more time and energy than taking the substitution shortcut. Remember - a shortcut is great if it gets you to your destination, but it’s not useful if it doesn’t take you where you need to go.


I have no idea what kind of a person Will Smith is or what his values are. I didn’t see any of the subsequent videos, apologies, or statements issued after the event. But if I think I know him after his behavior at the Oscars, I have substituted real knowledge I don’t have with an inferior but easily accessible replacement - my opinion of that one event.

And that’s a bad take.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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