What is Availability Bias? And why we prefer a wrong map to no map at all
Availability bias is the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. In short – our decisions are based on information we can easily recall.
Here’s are some examples
‘Smoking can’t be that bad for you: my grandfather smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be more than 100.’
‘Manhattan is really safe. I know someone who lives in the middle of the Village and he never locks his door. Not even when he goes on vacation, and his apartment has never been broken into.’
We use statements like these to try to prove something, but they actually prove nothing at all. When we speak like this, we succumb to the availability bias.
Can you overcome Availability Bias?
Are there more English words that start with a K or more words with K as their third letter?
Answer: more than twice as many English words have K in third position than start with a K.
Why do most people believe the opposite is true?
Because we can think of words beginning with a K more quickly. They are more available to our memory.
The availability bias says this: we create a picture of the world using the examples that most easily come to mind. This is absurd, of course, because in reality, things don’t happen more frequently just because we can conceive of them more easily.
This amazing illustration of the availability heuristic was made by @cartoonbias. Do check out their work on Instagram.
Example of Availability Bias
Below are some examples of Availability Bias in various scenarios:
Thanks to the availability bias, we travel through life with an incorrect risk map in our heads. Thus, we systematically overestimate the risk of being the victim of a plane crash, a car accident or a murder. And we underestimate the risk of dying from less spectacular means, such as diabetes or stomach cancer. The chances of bomb attacks are much rarer than we think, and the chances of suffering depression are much higher. We attach too much likelihood to spectacular, flashy or loud outcomes. Anything silent or invisible we downgrade in our minds. Our brains imagine show-stopping outcomes more readily than mundane ones. We think dramatically, not quantitatively.
Tend to use one-size-fits-all
Doctors often fall victim to the availability bias. They have their favourite treatments, which they use for all possible cases. More appropriate treatments may exist, but these are in the recesses of the doctors’ minds. Consequently, they practise what they know. Consultants are no better. If they come across an entirely new case, they do not throw up their hands and sigh: ‘I really don’t know what to tell you.’ Instead they turn to one of their more familiar methods, whether or not it is ideal.
Often repeated things stick
If something is repeated often enough, it gets stored at the forefront of our minds. It doesn’t even have to be true. How often did the Nazi leaders have to repeat the term ‘the Jewish question’ before the masses began to believe that it was a serious problem? You simply have to utter the words ‘UFO’, ‘life energy’ or ‘karma’ enough times before people start to credit them.
Sticking to the agenda
The availability bias has an established seat at the corporate board’s table, too. Board members discuss what management has submitted – usually quarterly figures – instead of more important things, such as a clever move by the competition, a slump in employee motivation or an unexpected change in customer behaviour. They tend not to discuss what’s not on the agenda.
We prefer easier to obtain information
In addition, people prefer information that is easy to obtain, be it economic data or recipes. They make decisions based on this information rather than on more relevant but harder to obtain information – often with disastrous results.
We prefer incorrect information rather than no information
For example, we have known for ten years that the so-called Black–Scholes formula for the pricing of derivative financial products does not work. But we don’t have another solution, so we carry on with an incorrect tool. It is as if you were in a foreign city without a map, and then pulled out one for your home town and simply used that. We prefer wrong information to no information. Thus, the availability bias has presented the banks with billions in losses.
What was it that Frank Sinatra sang?
‘Oh, my heart is beating wildly
And it’s all because you’re here
When I’m not near the girl I love
I love the girl I’m near.’
A perfect example of the availability bias. Fend it off by spending time with people who think differently than you think – people whose experiences and expertise are different than yours. We require others’ input to overcome the availability bias.
Ambiguity Aversion – THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RISK AND UNCERTAINTY
Illusion of Attention – YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE OVERLOOKING
Association Bias – WHY EXPERIENCE CAN DAMAGE OUR JUDGEMENT
Feature-Positive Effect – WHY CHECKLISTS DECEIVE YOU
Confirmation Bias (Part 1) – BEWARE THE ‘SPECIAL CASE’
Confirmation Bias (Part 2) – MURDER YOUR DARLINGS
Contrast Effect – LEAVE YOUR SUPERMODEL FRIENDS AT HOME
Neglect of Probability – WHY YOU’LL SOON BE PLAYING MEGATRILLIONS
The above article is from the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand cognitive biases. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!