Select Page

Availability Heuristic

Definition

A bias to utilize the information that first comes to mind when making choices.

The heuristic, a mental shortcut that enables folks to solve problems quickly, functions on the assumption that if someone recalls information, it must be more notable when compared to alternatives.

As such, folks are more likely to weigh decisions using recent information as it’s easily accessible.

Why Use It

When making a decision, several related situations or events will immediately spring to mind. Naturally, we perceive those situations as more likely than others, and as a result, folks overestimate their probability of occurrence.

Our minds favor ease of recall and retrievability:

  • The recency of a thought or memory magnifies its significance.
    Compelling narratives spark an emotional reaction and are ingrained into memory.
  • The heuristic leads to making poor choices because utilizing the first thought that comes to mind is insufficient. By prioritizing low-quality information, you end up informing the incorrect decision.

When to Use It

It’s easy to be swayed by what our mind recalls first, especially when it has made a big impression on you. Emotions, expectations, and beliefs influence which thoughts or memories bubble up when making a decision. Say, for example, that you survived a hurricane; you might think the odds of enduring another are higher than they are statistically.

The way we retrieve information is biased and limited by how memories are made and highlighted in our minds — it unconsciously influences judgments.

On the one hand, it’s sometimes helpful for the mind to arrive at conclusions quickly, but that doesn’t make an unsubstantiated hunch correct.

How to Use It

Availability bias warps reality and creates predictable results. As humans, we are both susceptible to the effect and use it to our advantage.

As an individual, being aware of these quick judgments that lead to bad decision-making is something to bear in mind. Are you clear on the answer, and does the data validate your assumption?

When it comes to using the heuristic to create a specific result, there are myriad applications in business, education, media, etc.

For example, retailers clump the same type of store next to one another. Why is there a diamond or fashion district? People remember the location of where a product is sold and then predictably go to that location. The group of stores has a higher chance of receiving that individual’s patronage than a location off the beaten path.

The exposure effect, where folks develop a preference for something they’re familiar with, has a similar outcome. The more exposed someone is to a person, a brand, a thing, the easier it is to recall. The effect, when positive, leads to feelings of intimacy or ownership of that thing when remembered. Conversely, if there’s an expectation, such as wearing a mask in specific areas, and someone doesn’t, it can have the opposite effect.

The media can paint reality by sensationalizing a narrative, such as shark attacks in the summer. While the likelihood of dying from one is low compared to car accidents or diseases, they are widely reported. Interestingly, humans have about as much chance of dying from shark attacks as they do from being hit by falling airplane parts, but most people wouldn’t recognize those odds as comparable.

How to Misuse It

The availability heuristic has its place, and recalling events that appear to happen often or leave a lasting impression can be helpful in certain situations.

Recognizing how our minds misrepresent the probabilities of child abductions, airplane accidents, and shark attacks is a way to perceive its limitations.

Next Step

Folks make hundreds of decisions every day, many of them from vivid imagery, emotional reactions, and media coverage influencing how we lead our daily lives and feeding into the heuristic.

Become aware of your intrinsic biases that might lead to rash judgments, recognize where others might lead you, and take the time to be rigorous when making important decisions.

Where it Came From

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman worked on several pieces regarding “heuristic and biases” from the 1960s through the 1970s. The team coined the term “availability heuristic” in 1973.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.

Deep Dive Into Mental Models

Deep Dive Into Mental Models

Mental models are thinking tools. They simplify complexity so you can solve problems and make decisions more confidently. Sound interesting? Get my newsletter.

 

As a thank you, I'll send my ebook The Independent Creative's Guide to Personal Branding.

An email with the link to download your free personal branding book has been sent your way!

Download The Independent Creative's Guide to Personal Branding — It's Free!

And subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter on mental models. Once signed up, I'll email you the download link.

An email with the link to download your free personal branding book has been sent your way!

Download The Independent Creative's Guide to Personal Branding — It's Free!

And subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter on mental models. Once signed up, I'll email you the download link.

An email with the link to download your free personal branding book has been sent your way!