The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias and mental shortcut that occurs when you prefer to use the most easily accessible information in your decision-making.
Information that is easy to access will carry greater weight in our analysis than information that is harder to retrieve.
Our minds need to process a lot of information on a daily basis. It is impossible to go through a long and deliberative thinking process every time we make a decision! Therefore, we take mental shortcuts to make our lives easier.
We use the availability heuristic in a wide range of situations. For example, when we are judging the likelihood of a natural disaster or who among the staff should be promoted.
Definition of Availability Heuristic
Simply, the availability heuristic is a heuristic example (aka mental shortcut) where people preference the most readily available answers in their minds. They similarly dismiss the least readily available answers.
As Tversky and Kahneman (1973) stated,
“A person is said to employ the availability heuristic whenever he estimates frequency or probability by the ease with which instances or associations could be brought to mind” (p. 208).
That ease of accessibility could be due to the fact that a specific piece of information is the most recent, or maybe because it is the most salient in memory. Instead of relying on factual data, our thought processes are affected by the information that comes to mind the easiest.
Unfortunately, this means that our judgments will sometimes be wrong and result in negative consequences.
Availability Heuristic Examples
1. Leading Survey Questions
Sometimes, survey questions plant ideas in people’s minds. These questions intentionally make one idea more available, which encourages people to use that idea in their response.
People conducting surveys need to be very careful about leading the interviewees toward an answer that they want. For example, an interview question might be:
“What is your favorite holiday destination (e.g. French Riviera, Cuba, Bali)?”
This interview question will likely have a high proportion of respondents giving the French Riviera, Cuba or Bali as their favorite holiday destinations. This is because the interviewer has made available a few simple, easy answers for the interviewee, and ensured those answers are top of mind for them.
2. Moral Panic
The media keeps sensationalist stories about minorities and subcultures at the top of people’s minds through relentless and disproportionate reporting on the issues. This stirs people into panic or worry, despite facts not bearing out the case.
Moral panic occurs when society collectively worries about a moral issue. Examples of moral panics include ‘youth delinquency’, despite it not being a true epidemic.
This phenomenon, studied since the 1960s in England, shows how people (often youths and minorities) are blamed for all the moral ills of society. Groups that have been the target of moral panics include punks, goths, immigrants, and Muslims.
This moral panic is whipped up by the media, who keep the issues at the top of the minds of the public, despite the statistical fact that these subcultural groups are no more prone to problems than the rest of society.
3. Dangers of Flying
When a plane crashes it gets a lot of media exposure. It will appear on nearly every news channel and there will be extensive coverage examining the possible causes of the crash.
There will be interviews with officials at the scene and aviation experts that specialize in crash reconstruction. There might even be a graphic animation that shows the plane’s trajectory and eventual crash. This can go on for days.
However, when a car accident happens, there may be no news coverage at all. There certainly will not be an animation.
This is why most people think that travel by plane is far more dangerous than by car. Statistically speaking however, just the opposite is true. But because the news of a plane crash is so much more available in our memory, it has a tremendous impact on our judgement about risk.
4. Billboard Marketing
Exposure marketing – where companies put up billboards of their product all over the city – work because the product is at the front of the customer’s mind when making choices at the supermarket.
Companies know the importance of advertising. Large corporations spend so much on advertising that sometimes those costs can account for 20-30% of a product’s price point.
They also are acutely aware of the availability heuristic. The more frequently consumers are exposed to a product, via advertising, the more easily accessible in memory that product will be when the consumer is making a purchasing decision. Frequency increases availability.
Saliency also increases availability. So, companies will hire advertising agencies that can produce eye-catching commercials. They know that an interesting commercial is likely to stick in the minds of consumers and will be more easily activated when shopping.
When trying to assign blame for a problem, we often blame the nearest or most obvious cause, rather than investigating the problem.
For example, if you saw a break-in at the supermarket, your first assumption may be to blame the same person who committed a break-in the previous month at the same supermarket.
This is the most available explanation for the situation.
However, this is not enough for us to lock him away and throw away the key! The person may be a worthy suspect, but evidence is required beyond the mere fact that this person is the most available scapegoat for the situation.
6. Incidence of Natural Disasters
If a natural disaster has occurred in the recent past, we will consider them to occur more frequently than if one hasn’t occurred very recently. This is regardless of historical trends and statistics.
If you ask people how likely is it they will be the victim of a tornado or flood, their answers will change dramatically depending on when they are asked.
For example, if you ask shortly after a natural disaster of that kind has occurred, estimates will be much higher compared to asking during calmer times. This seems perfectly understandable, although scientifically speaking, the answer should be based on facts and probability statistics.
The availability heuristic explains this phenomenon quite well. Recent news of a natural disaster will be recalled much easier than news of an event that occurred years ago. Therefore, that recent news will pop to mind when making a judgment about the likelihood of it occurring in the near future.
7. Who does the most Housework?
When determining who does the most housework, the information that comes to mind immediately is the housework you did. Therefore, you weigh it more heavily in your mind.
If you ask married couples who does the most housework, the wife or the husband, the answers will be quite different. Both spouses will take credit for a substantial amount of the housework. This is not surprising for a variety of reasons.
First, we are more likely to be aware of the work we do. After all, we directly observe ourselves in action. Whereas, the other person may be doing housework in another room or when we are out of the house. So, we can’t really see that work happening.
Another reason is because of the availability heuristic. When we make a judgment regarding the frequency of something, the data that comes to mind the easiest will affect our estimates. For this reason, each spouse will make their answer based on the ease with which their actions come to mind.
Of course, there also might be a little bit of self-serving bias at play as well.
8. Evaluating Job Performance
In your yearly performance evaluation, it’s best to have recent success, as this will come to the evaluator’s mind more readily than one that happened at the beginning of the year.
Most companies conduct job performance reviews. They usually come at a certain time of the year. This can work in your favor, or, perhaps not.
Ideally, it would benefit you most if you had success right before it was your turn to be evaluated. That success could involve landing a new client, closing a lucrative contract, or giving a stellar presentation to top management.
Mangers are not robots and they are subject to the same faulty decision-making processes as everyone else. So, when they come to your file, the most salient information they have about your work will be that great success you had just last week.
This will influence their ratings of your work across the board, even in areas that are not directly related to your recent success. Of course, if your most recent performance was a complete disaster, well…
9. Talent Show Winners
Sometimes it is not the degree of talent that wins, but the amount of flair that counts the most. This is because the most dramatic performance is the most memorable, not the most talented.
Judging a talent show can be a lot more difficult than it looks. Each act is different and they may all be entertaining. Ideally, the performers with the most talent will be chosen as the winners.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The flashy acts will be more memorable. Because they are more memorable, when it comes time for the judges to make their decisions, those acts will have an edge.
There may have been other acts that required more talent or involved more intricacy and precision. However, because the overall performance was not eye-catching or didn’t evoke intense emotions, they seem less impressive.
10. Health Statistics
The nightly news often presents sensationalized headlines about people who have gotten ill, often from very rare conditions. After watching the news, we will sometimes consider those rare conditions to be less rare than they really are, simply based on the fact we’ve heard about them recently.
Unfortunately, this can cause people to have a faulty impression of societal ills. For example, people will overestimate the chances of themselves getting ill.
So, what’s the harm in that? Well, it skews the perception of reality. It leads people to believe that society is worse off than it really is. It fosters the belief that there is a lot to fear, which is disproportionate to the facts.
11. Which Student Gets Selected
There is a tendency for teachers to think of the noisiest and most disruptive students first when thinking about which student to select. This is simply because the disruptive student is always at the top of the teacher’s mind.
Teachers have very difficult jobs. Managing a classroom of 20 students is extremely challenging, especially if those students are very young learners around 5 and 6 years old. They are constantly fidgeting about and are prone to crying and temper tantrums. Keeping their attention is also a huge challenge.
As most teachers will confess, the naughty kids get the most attention. The teacher simply must spend a greater amount of time interacting directly with them. It’s the shy and quiet kids that often go less noticed. Of course, this is a bit unfair.
It can also mean that the youngsters that are the best behaved are passed over when a teacher has to select students to participate in various activities. Even though a student that is shy may be the most suitable for the event, it is the naughty child that comes to mind the easiest. Therefore, they are more likely to be selected.
12. Who Gets Promoted
When it comes time to get promoted, it’s often not the best performer, but the best networker to get the job. This is because the networker is always interacting with the boss, ensuring they’re always at the top of the boss’s mind.
We all wish that decisions about who gets promoted at work were completely objective and rational. Promotions are important and managers should only base their judgments on each person’s performance reviews and job record.
Unfortunately, that is just not the case. The work of one or two employees, who always show off their work, may consistently come to mind when thinking about how the staff has contributed. The people that stand out the most are more likely to get promoted just because their work comes to mind the easiest.
It may very well be that the person that does the best work is also very calm and reserved, doesn’t talk much at meetings, and isn’t a lively and outgoing person. So, they will not come to mind as easily as other coworkers that are more boisterous and outgoing.
13. Graphic Evidence and Conviction Rates
Showing jurors graphic photos will increase the probability that jurors will be able to recall the information associated with that image. Imagery increases the availability of information in the mind.
The legal system contains a multitude of examples for decision-making heuristics and biases. Since humans are involved at every step, there are numerous opportunities for errors.
Of course, lawyers are aware of these opportunities and often implement strategies to exploit those circumstances to their client’s advantage.
The use of graphic evidence is just one example. Showing jurors graphic photos of a crime scene will increase the probability that jurors will be able to recall the information associated with that image. Because it is more available, it will have a greater impact on their judgement.
Although other facts in the case may be more relevant to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, the graphic nature of an image will have more sway in the verdict.
14. Cramming for an Exam
Cramming for an exam could help you to get a few more grades because it makes your answers top of mind as you walk into the test.
But this heuristic can cause problems when you start the test and you realize that the three things you crammed for seem to be the answer to every question!
Instead of looking at each question and carefully considering the answer to that specific question, your mind is going to want to provide the answers that you ensured were top of mind before the test began – regardless of the question! As a result, you give the wrong answer simply because you have one particular answer at the top of mind.
15. Brand Loyalty
Brand loyalty occurs partly not due to the quality of a product but due to familiarity. In these instances, you’ll choose the product that’s top of mind, not the one that is necessarily best.
For example, if you have always owned a laptop from Brand A and it’s time to buy a new laptop, you’re more likely to purchase from that laptop brand again. It’s the brand that first comes to mind.
Of course, there are other factors including familiarity and satisfaction with the product. However, the availability heuristic also plays a part in influencing decision making when it comes to brand loyalty.
Other Examples of Heuristics
The fundamental lesson to be learned from the availability heuristic is that human beings are not very good at fact-based decision-making. Our judgements are easily swayed by the kind of information we have in our memory and how easy it is to access.
Everyday life is full of examples. The ease with which information is recalled can affect how jurors weigh evidence and determine guilt or innocence. The boisterous child or the outgoing coworker can make it more likely that they are selected for a school event or receive a promotion. Media exposure can make us form a distorted impression of societal ills or develop an irrational fear of flying.
Although most people would like to think of themselves as being able to conduct an objective analysis of events around us, it turns out that is simply not the case.
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Sivak, M., & Flannagan, M. J. (2003). Macroscope: flying and driving after the September 11 attacks. American Scientist, 91(1), 6-8.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 207–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9