How The Effort Heuristic Affects The Way People Perceive You

We solve thousands of problems every day and may not even realize it. What should I eat for lunch today? Which route should I take home? Should I watch that seventh Netflix episode in a row?

But as humans, it is impossible for us to consciously weigh out the pros and cons of every situation. Instead, our brains use heuristics to streamline our problem solving processes.

A heuristic is any mental shortcut that we use for problem solving, learning, or discovery. Heuristics occur subconsciously and allow us to solve multiple problems at a time. Without heuristics, we would be horribly inefficient at living our daily lives.


When people interact with your business for the first time, they’re going to establish an opinion about your brand. This first impression happens through a heuristic process. One common heuristic that we use to make first impressions is the effort heuristic.

Based on this study done by the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, the effort heuristic states that people will generally associate something to be of higher quality based on the amount of time and effort that they perceive has went into building or creating it.

In one of the experiments in the study, participants were asked to evaluate the quality of a piece of poetry. Participants were required to make two types of judgements: qualitative (“How much do you like the poem?”) and quantitative (“How much do you think the poem is worth?”).

Half of the participants were told that the poem took four hours (low effort) to complete, while the other half of the participants were told that the poem took eighteen hours (high effort) to complete.

The results demonstrated that those who were told that the poem took more effort to complete not only feltthat the poem had higher quality, but also valued the poem to be worth almost twice as much.




In today’s connected world, a visit to your business’ website is the first touch point for new customers. For businesses that don’t include quality as a part of their brand identity, the design of your website may not matter as much. However, if you position your business towards the higher end of the quality spectrum, a professionally designed website is a worthy investment.

If quality is indeed the name of your game, your website’s design isn’t the only thing that you should pay attention to. The caliber of your content, such as the text, pictures, and videos that live on your website should also be good enough to meet the expectations of your customers. Misspellings, low-quality pictures, or poorly produced videos could send the wrong message.

Remember that until you have had a chance to walk a customer though a demo or have them experience your products or services in person, the perceived quality of your brand matters more than the real value.


Bad timing or a lack of capital could be the reason why you haven’t been able to dedicate as many resources to your marketing as you should have. Despite this, you’re not totally screwed. Here are a few quick tips that you can implement now to help boost your brand’s perceived value:

  • Audit your website’s copy – Make sure there are no misspellings, grammatical errors, or other obvious mistakes.
  • Remove low-quality pictures – If you have low resolution pictures on your website, take them off. Replace them with stock photography from sites like ShutterStock or BigStock, if you can.
  • Talk to your customers – The best validation is feedback from real people. Ask them what they think of your brand. Do they think your website matches the quality of your actual products or services? How about your other marketing materials?


We can be a victim of our own heuristics. Because we’re in a time crunch or on a tight budget, we may be led to believe that cutting corners on our website’s design or marketing materials might be a good idea. The effort heuristic as demonstrated above tells us otherwise.

First impressions matter and can make a very substantial difference in how people value your products or services. So the next time you’re presented with a “cheap” option for marketing your business, make sure you think twice!


Using Subliminal Affective Priming To “Hack” A First Impression

“You only get one chance at a first impression.”

It’s a very obvious statement, but in life, first impressions are everything. You could have ten million dollars in your bank account and a Bugatti Veyron in your garage, but if you rub a person the wrong way when you first meet them, chances are they probably won’t like you very much.

It’s no different in the business world. If you walk into Saks and encounter a sales person who looks like they’re having a shitty day, you will probably steer clear of that person. I know of zero people that are willing to tolerate a bad customer experience for any item, regardless of how much they want it.

This is because people largely base their decisions on emotions first, before logic.

Sure, we can be logical, when we are told that we need to think that way. However, when you need to make an on-the-spot decision, our emotions tend to take over.


An experiment conducted in 1997 by three psychologists at the University of Michigan and Stanford Universitysays that something called subliminal affective priming could help you “hack” your first impressions to get people to think positively about you, even before they’ve made a conscious judgement.

Piotr Winkielman (U of M, Ann Arbor), Robert B. Zajonc (Stanford University), and Norbert Schwarz (U of M, Ann Arbor), explored how priming people with different types of positive and negative stimuli affected their overall judgement.

The experiment was conducted on 63 undergraduates from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The study examined if briefly exposing a person to a “happy” or “angry” face before showing them another unrelated photo had any correlation with their feelings about that picture.

To determine this, the participants were first shown one of the following three pictures: a polygon, a happy face, or an angry face. This visual prime was only shown for 10 milliseconds. Right after, they were shown a picture of a Chinese symbol for 2 seconds. Finally, the participants were given 8 seconds to judge how much they liked the Chinese symbol on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 meaning, “I don’t like this at all.” and 6 meaning, “I like this very much.”

The experiment was conducted in two rounds. During the second round of the experiment, the researchers aimed to determine if people were subliminally “anchored” to feeling a certain way based on being exposed to a “happy” or “angry” face in the first round. Therefore, those who were exposed to a “happy” face in the first round were exposed to an “angry” face in the second round, and vice versa.



The results of the experiment demonstrated the following:

  • People that were shown a happy face first, liked the picture of the Chinese symbol significantly more than those who were exposed a neutral stimulus (picture of a polygon).
  • People who were shown an angry face first, liked the picture of the Chinese symbol less than those who were exposed to the neutral polygon.
  • Those who were shown a happy face in the first round, then shown an angry face in the second round, still liked the Chinese picture more than neutral.
  • Those who were shown an angry face in the first round, then shown a happy face in the second round, still liked the Chinese symbol less than neutral.


The data tells us that even the smallest, subconscious details of first impressions matter. In the experiment, those who were exposed to a positive stimulus (a “happy” face) had a more positive opinion about the item that they were judging right afterwards.

Furthermore, those who were exposed to a positive stimulus still had a positive opinion about the item that they were judging, even if a negative stimulus was shown to them. This demonstrates anchoring effect of a first impression.

When customers walk in your door, visit your website, or meet one of your sales reps for the first time, that first impression sets the tone for all of the interactions that will happen after that.

An interaction that begins with positive cues such as a smile, strong handshake, or confident body language, could trump a stutter or brain fart in the middle of your pitch. On the flip side, a frown or a snarky attitude could make it very difficult for you to get on your potential customers’ bright side, even after you try to fix it.


You don’t have to give away free stuff to get your customers to like you. Stick with the following basic tips to make sure you have a chance at a lasting positive first impression: