Availability bias: the tendency to use information that easily comes to mind

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As humans, our ability to make the right decisions is limited by the many constraints of our mind. One such constraint is the availability bias — our tendency to make judgments based on previous experiences that are easily recalled. When some piece of information is easily brought to mind, we incorrectly assume that it’s an accurate reflection of reality. This cognitive bias often leads to the illusion of rational thinking and, ultimately, to bad decisions.

The science of the availability bias

In 1955, Dr Herbert Simon formulated the notion that memory limitations can affect decision making. Simon further elaborated that it’s not possible for humans to consider every piece of relevant information. Instead, we focus on the data within our minds that’s easily available and thus seems to be the most pertinent.

Simon’s research opened the door to the modern examination of decision-making processes, and the shortcuts we utilise to reach conclusions. The term “availability heuristic”, another term for the availability bias, was later coined by Dr Amos Tversky and Dr Daniel Kahneman in 1973.

They described the natural human tendency to assume that examples we can readily think of are more relevant than they truly are. For example, if you’re looking for a new note-taking app, you might go for a particular tool because you recall that a friend recently raved about it. Or, if you read about a plane crash in the news a week before you are due to fly for work, you may overestimate the likelihood of your own plane crashing.

When evaluating colleagues, managers may remember the one incident in which a team member accidentally caused a major delay to a project, without recalling the many other days in which the colleague worked without issue. The availability bias may lead to an unfairly negative view of the colleague.

Tversky and Kahneman wrote a series of papers examining biases used in judgement under uncertainty, and their research offered insight into the cognitive processes that explain human error.

In their own words: “Availability is an ecologically valid clue for the judgement of frequency because, in general, frequent events are easier to recall or imagine than infrequent ones. However, availability is also affected by various factors which are unrelated to actual frequency. If the availability heuristic is applied, then such factors will affect the perceived frequency of classes and the subjective probability of events. Consequently, the use of the availability heuristic leads to systematic biases.”

The impact of availability bias on decision making

The availability bias may significantly impact your day-to-day decisions in both your professional and personal life. A study by Ping Li and colleagues highlighted that even doctors can misdiagnose patients as a result of the availability bias. Their study demonstrated that recent experience of a health condition makes it easier to recall, and therefore increases  the chance that a subsequent patient might be misdiagnosed with the same illness.

Dr Valerie Folkes explains that the availability bias can also influence consumer’s beliefs about perceived risk. As part of her research, Folkes confirmed that our recent experience of a product becomes part of our internal decision-making data. For example, across one week you may count all the times your smartwatch fails to automatically sync to your phone to deduce an estimate of its failure rate.

However, this estimate would be based only on those recent failures to sync — which are easily recalled — without taking into account the many times it has synced without issue during the previous year. The easy access to recent data within your mind makes it seem like this information is important and accurate. As a result, the perceived smartwatch failure rate is higher than reality.

But that’s not all. Dr Norbert Schwarz and colleagues found that the availability bias can also impact self-evaluation. When asked whether they were assertive, study participants who only needed to list six examples of their assertive behaviour believed that they were assertive. But those who had to think of 12 examples found the exercise much harder, and concluded that they were not assertive. Their self-evaluation was based on how easy the recall felt — a typical example of the availability bias at play.

The availability bias can also impact the way that you feel about education. Dr Craig Fox wrote in 2006 that difficulty of recall can influence the way you evaluate a course. If you’re asked only to provide two pieces of negative feedback, you may conclude that the teaching you’re receiving is poor because it’s easy to think of just two negatives. However, if asked to list ten pieces of negative feedback, the task is far harder, and you’re likely to conclude that the course must be good.

As you can see, the availability bias impacts our decisions in many areas of life and work, which can lead to bad decision making. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid its worst pitfalls.

How to manage the availability bias

To make it easier and quicker to make decisions, our mind applies shortcuts. Some of those shortcuts lead to cognitive biases, such as the availability bias. While it’s not possible to completely overcome this cognitive bias, there are several ways to manage it.

  1. Practise deliberate brainstorming. Instead of going for the most obvious solution, which is likely to be heavily influenced by your most recent experiences, conduct research and generate as many potential solutions as possible based on factual data. You can practise deliberate brainstorming on your own or with your team. This not only helps to manage availability bias, but may also lead to the generation of innovative solutions that you may not otherwise have considered.
  2. Try “red teaming” ideas. Red teaming is similar to playing devil’s advocate. It involves rigorously challenging ideas and assessing ideas from an opposing point of view to discover flaws or shortcomings. The aim is to avoid making unsound decisions and to mitigate potential adverse events. As part of red teaming ideas, decision makers should explore alternative solutions, interrogate the underlying facts, and try to view the decision from an impartial point of view to thoroughly test the integrity of a decision.
  3. Use self-reflection methods. Self-reflection can take the form of journaling, talking out loud to yourself, or thinking deeply about a decision while away from distractions — for example while taking a walk. Taking time to reflect on decisions prior to executing them allows for a delay that will reduce the power of the availability bias, so that other ideas have the necessary space to surface.

While the mind’s shortcuts make decision-making quicker and easier, they can lead to less-than-ideal solutions. As you have seen, the availability bias may lead to poor personal and professional decisions. While it’s impossible for this cognitive bias to be completely overridden, you can avoid some of its most negative effects by brainstorming, red teaming ideas, and implementing a self-reflection practice. These strategies will help you take a more objective view of the information available to you.

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