Series 2, Episode 16: Availability Bias
Welcome back to the bitesize behaviour podcast and like in other episodes, I’m going to start this episode with a question.
Which of these jobs is the most risky? Working with sharks or working with cows?
It’s really hard to think that working with cows can be that risky - especially when compared to working with a shark! But when asked this question, thanks in part to the movie Jaws, it’s easier to think of a shark attacking us than a cow. Right?
Well, the evidence is pretty clear. You are 11 times more likely to be killed by a cow that by a shark, but, since there have been no movies made about a killer cow (not that I know of anyway), it’s hard to recall or even create this image. Jaws on the other hand is easy to recall and this influences how we process this question to reach an answer.
We do this because of what is called the availability bias.
Now, you will recall that in Series 1, Episode 5 we talked about heuristics, those shortcuts we take, and the availability heuristic was mentioned then. This is a more specific version of that, so it may sound familiar in parts.
So to recap. The availability bias is when we rely too heavily on information that we can immediately think of. It’s our tendency to judge stuff by how easy examples can be retrieved from your memory. The reason we’ve evolved to rely on information that we easily recall, is that it prevents us from having to go through the really hard task of thinking hard, fact-checking and analysing. However, relying on the most easily recalled information and not thinking about things properly also increases the chance that our decisions will be flawed.
Now it’s easy to understand how the things that are most memorable can be brought to front of mind most quickly, and we know that this works especially well if we need to recall from memory something that we observed or experienced ourselves - first hand. We can recall those memories much easier than things that we only heard about from someone else.
IS DIETING SUCCESSFUL?
Say you personally know 5 people who have successfully dieted and all lost weight. You are asked about your views on whether you think that dieting can ever be successful. When you’re asked this question, you’ll find it almost impossible not to immediately think about the 5 people you know and the success they had at dieting, and you will use this information to influence how you answer that question. If you didn’t know anyone who had successfully dieted - or even been on a diet - you have nothing to recall. You have no first-hand information available to you, no personal point of reference, so you are more likely to base your answer on information that is more widely available, such as statistics on the success of dieting, or more likely, to be honest, your personal opinion.
We also have an ability to immediately bring front of mind images that we have no first hand experience of at all, but yet we can still create a vivid, and powerful image. Let me explain.
In Series 2, Episode 12 we talked about probability neglect, and how people can easily recall powerful vivid images like plane crashes or even envisage what a big lottery win would look like, which leads people to overestimate the chance - the probability - that those events will happen to them. This means that the ease at which you can recall a plane crash can lead some of us to avoid flying all together, and see some of us paying £10 a week in the belief that a big lottery win will happen to us and set us up for life.
The media plays a significant role in this, too. Even if we’ve never experienced something first hand, the fact that the news show us vivid images of events - positive and negative - means certain things are easier to recall, even if we don’t have personal experience of them.
We can find many examples of the news reporting on plane accidents, but we’d struggle to find a news report of someone suffering a heart attack - which is so much more likely than a plane accident. Or we can find examples of the news reporting on a person who has just had a massive lottery win, but will never find a report about the person who worked hard, saved into their pension from the age of 25, and is living a very happy and financially stable retirement.
The things that stand out are more likely to be remembered simply because we actually give them increased attention in the first place. So, let’s try this for real. Play along with this quick game with me as I attempt to prove this point.
The game has been removed from this article as it relies on listening and recalling information. To play along, click here.
So - remember that the information we recall plays an important role in how we make decisions. The availability bias, which we all have, if relied on too much, can sometimes lead to us making decisions that don’t serve us well.
Try and remember this. Just because something is vivid in your head doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more common, so it can be helpful to pause and as we’ve discussed in several of the episodes in this series, take time to think about all sides of the story, all the facts and not just the ones that are the most obvious when you come to make a decision.
So - that’s it for today. In the next episode of Bitesize Behaviours we’ll look at the bias that makes us say “I knew that would happen!”. We’ll be looking at the Hindsight Bias.
See you next time on bitesize behaviour.