Everything You Need to Know About the Availability Heuristic

Everything You Need to Know About the Availability Heuristic

Let’s explore how the availability heuristic works and take a look at its benefits and pitfalls.

We make a lot of decisions every day. From simple things like what to wear to determining our likelihood of getting a specific disease. But the brain has limits on the amount of information it can process. So when a situation is complex, we often don’t have the capacity or the time to consider all the available information and possible alternatives. Heuristics simplify decisions by making the judgment process easier and more intuitive (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

The availability heuristic is a type of shortcut we use to assess the likelihood of an event. We base this assessment on how quickly and easily examples come to mind. We believe that if we can remember something effortlessly, it must be important and happen frequently. It can be a useful tool for making quick judgments but can also lead us to poor decisions.

The main benefit of the availability heuristic is it allows you to assess risk and make decisions quickly and easily (Pachur et al., 2012). As mentioned above, sometimes we just don’t have the time or resources to gather enough information to evaluate fully. The availability heuristic provides a foundation to draw conclusions fast, thus freeing up your mind to focus on other things. It simplifies complex decisions so you can take timely action.

“Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.”
― Steven Pinker

However, ease of memory recall is often a poor guide for judging risk. Memories that are recent, unusual, or have an emotional component stand out. But this doesn’t necessarily mean these types of events happen frequently. So it’s easy to see how this can lead to bias, errors in judgment, and poor decisions. Here are a few examples of what can happen:

The availability heuristic can actually lead to riskier behavior. After 9/11, the fear of terrorist attacks persuaded many people to travel by car rather than flying, even though the odds of another similar attack were minuscule. This upsurge in car travel led to an increase in car crashes, causing almost as many deaths as the terrorist attack (Blalock et al., 2009).

It can create unnecessary worry. If a friend was recently diagnosed with a serious illness, we tend to overestimate our chances of getting it too (Pachur et al., 2012). This can potentially increase worry and stress. And ironically, worry and stress can increase the risk of getting sick.

Miscalculating risk can hold you back from doing things you want to do like traveling or enjoying the ocean. What joyful life experiences might you be missing out on?

Examples of The Availability Heuristic

Fear of flying: An often cited example is overestimating the chances of being in a plane crash because of the extensive media coverage after one happens. This can trigger a fear of flying even though we’re far more likely to die in a car crash.

Fear of terrorist attacks: This also stands out in our minds due to extensive media coverage and its emotional nature.

Fear of getting in the ocean after seeing the movie Jaws: It’s more common to die from being struck by lightning or be hit by parts falling off a plane.

Beliefs about global warming: In one study, participants ranked the seriousness of climate change higher if they were asked on a day that was unusually warm as opposed to unusually cold (Li et al., 2011).

Medical misdiagnosis: At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a case of Legionella pneumonia was mistakenly thought to be Covid (Kyere et al., 2022). This can be serious because it leads to inappropriate treatment.

How to Avoid The Availability Heuristic

● The first step is becoming aware of it. Ask yourself: ‘Was this the first thing that popped into my mind? Is this memory emotionally charged or especially vivid? Is it something I saw recently in the news?’

● If possible, delay a decision.

● Question your initial conclusions. Think about possible alternatives.

● Get more information. Investigate using reliable sources.

● Listen to someone who holds the opposite belief.

● Remember it’s okay to change your initial belief. Congratulate yourself on making a more informed conclusion

In Sum

The availability heuristic can help us make fast and efficient decisions. It’s a useful and necessary tool when faced with uncertainty or when we don’t have time to evaluate more thoroughly. However, it also tends to cause us to overestimate risks which can hold us back from doing things we want to do. It can also drive us to make poor decisions.

Becoming aware of when we’re using the availability heuristic is the first step toward reducing its influence on us. The next time you hold back from doing something you want to do because it feels risky, you might ask how many people were not harmed by this activity. Or if it feels like you’re worrying a bit too much about something happening, it can help to do some research to find out if your fear is based on fact or emotion.

References

● Blalock, G., Kadiyali, V., & Simon, D. H. (2009). Driving fatalities after 9/11: A hidden cost of terrorism. Applied Economics, 41(14), 1717–1729. https://doi.org/10.1080/00036840601069757

● Kyere, K., Aremu, T. O., & Ajibola, O. A. (2022). Availability bias and the COVID-19 pandemic: A case study of legionella pneumonia. Cureus. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.25846

● Li, Y., Johnson, E. J., & Zaval, L. (2011). Local warming. Psychological Science, 22(4), 454–459. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611400913

● Pachur, T., Hertwig, R., & Steinmann, F. (2012). How do people judge risks: Availability heuristic, affect heuristic, or both? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(3), 314–330. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028279

● Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.185.4157.1124