Availability Heuristic & the Easier Route to Decision Making

The availability heuristic is that some memories and facts are quickly retrieved while others take effort and thought to remember.

Lottery companies love to talk about recent winners.

Mr X won Rs 1 crore! On social media, news sites, blogs, etc., the winner becomes a minor celebrity.

And we then overestimate our chances of winning and purchase some lottery tickets.

We do stand a chance, but what are the actual chances?

The plane is preparing to land, and you can’t stop imagining an accident, especially after the recent crash. It finally lands safely, and you can relax, take a taxi and go home.

The chance of dying is 19 times higher because statistically, car accidents are much more common than aeroplanes. Traffic accidents are commonplace but since they are not newsworthy, the media need not cover them. Plane crashes are newsworthy, and you get a feeling that crashes are more likely to happen. The US government spends twice the money on fighting terrorism than on cancer, even though cancer has more casualties.

We judge something based on how easy it is to remember. Hence, we overestimate the possibility of events that are more recent or more dramatic. We underestimate the possibility of things that are less obvious in our minds.

This is called the availability heuristic.

Because of that, we make many mistakes and act irrationally.

Trying to remember when you saw the opposite when millions of people didn’t win the lottery would be very difficult. This is the availability heuristic because we judge situations and probabilities by how easily we remember examples. 

We also greatly underestimate the possibility of things that haven’t happened yet but are likely to happen in the future. If your city hasn’t experienced a natural disaster in the past decade, it’s unlikely that you will take it seriously and take precautions.

To rectify these mistakes, we need to analyze data rather than intuition/ news.

Heuristics are “rules of thumb” or mental shortcuts that help us make decisions. When we make decisions, the availability heuristics make our choices easier. The availability heuristic can lead to poor decisions because easy memories are insufficient to understand the likelihood of predicting the future or results. Hence decisions are based on the poor quality of information. 

The availability heuristic is that some memories and facts are quickly retrieved while others take effort and thought to remember. Some memories automatically come to mind for two main reasons: they often happen or leave a lasting memory. 

And also – Frequent is easier to recall than infrequent; Extreme is easier to recall than ordinary; Negative is easier to recall than positive; Recent is easier to recall than the distant past; Vivid is easier to recall than non-vivid

The availability heuristic has a significant impact on personal & professional lives. People make multiple decisions every day, and factors such as media coverage, emotional responses etc., have a greater influence than measured rational factors. Awareness of inherent prejudice can be a preventative measure against wrong reasoning, unintentional discrimination, or mistakes in decisions.

How to avoid it

Unfortunately, simply knowing how the availability heuristic works is not sufficient to fully address them. It describes the behaviour that results from the many associations by which our brains process all the information in the world.

  • A welcome step is awareness. It is important to support and implement guidelines that take heuristics into account. Measures to identify and review availability heuristics are essential to ensure fairness.
  • Mental networks must be activated, which make conscious, careful, and reflective decisions. This is often easier with collective decisions because other people can grasp cases where someone is superficially lured in by compelling (but ultimately untrue) information.
  • A more conscious strategy to counter the availability heuristic is called a “red-teaming”. Group members are nominated so that they challenge existing opinions independent of personal beliefs. Looking for errors that occur in decisions by individuals can reduce the chance of the heuristic being treated as fact.
  • To identify availability heuristics, we need to be aware of bias to monitor its impact on group behaviour. Understanding bias may not completely remove it from decision-making, however, it increases the likelihood of being identified in a group. Heuristics are very persistent until you develop an understanding of how they work. Sometimes people who are supposed to detect such issues may fall victim to the same prejudices that he should be prevented unless he is very vigilant when those prejudices take effect.

The combination of behavioural science with specialized resources can prevent wrong decisions and increase productivity in a variety of environments. For those of us who do not have competent advisors, studying behavioural science is a solid first step in developing your power to influence important decisions.

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