Attribute substitution is a psychological process thought to underlie a number of cognitive biases and perceptual illusions. It occurs when an individual has to make a judgment (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, and instead substitutes a more easily calculated heuristic attribute. This substitution is thought of as taking place in the automatic intuitive judgment system, rather than the more self-aware reflective system. Hence, when someone tries to answer a difficult question, they may actually answer a related but different question, without realizing that a substitution has taken place. This explains why individuals can be unaware of their own biases, and why biases persist even when the subject is made aware of them. It also explains why human judgments often fail to show regression toward the mean.
The theory of attribute substitution unifies a number of separate explanations of reasoning errors in terms of cognitive heuristics. In turn, the theory is subsumed by an effort-reduction framework proposed by Anuj K. Shah and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, which states that people use a variety of techniques to reduce the effort of making decisions.