How Availability Heuristic Warps Our View Of The World

In 1984, psychologist Norbert Schwarz did an experiment when he asked participants to list a number of instances in which they behaved assertively. Some participants were asked to list six and some twelve such situations. After they came up with the list, he asked them to evaluate how assertive they are. Not surprisingly, the act of listing situations when you behaved assertively gives you a sense that you are a pretty assertive person.

However, surprisingly, more is not better. Those who were asked to list only six such situations could do it easily and had a higher perception of their assertiveness than those who had to list twelve such occurrences. Listing twelve situations when you acted assertively is not so easy. You come up with a couple, but each additional is more and more difficult. When you are done with the twelfth, you have to think really hard, and therefore you feel you are not particularly assertive if it takes so much effort to come up with the list. Even though you came up with more instances than the person who listed only six, the fluency was low because it was more difficult. You don’t feel like being particularly assertive.

What is at play here is so-called availability heuristics. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how the availability heuristic works and how it can skew your view of the world or even yourself.

Availability heuristics

Kahneman points to a set of studies performed by Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Baruch Fischhoff. They asked the participants to consider pairs of causes of death and evaluate their likelihood. For example, tornados and asthma, or stroke and accidents. For each pair, the participants indicated which one was more likely and estimated the ratio of the two frequencies. The researchers then compared these numbers to the publicly available health statistics. The results supported the availability biases theory.

For example, while strokes cause almost twice the number of deaths as all accidents combined, 80% of participants thought that accidents are a more likely cause of death. Tornadoes were seen as more likely to kill you than asthma, even though the statistics showed that asthma is 20 times more likely to kill you than a tornado. Dying from disease was seen as equally likely to accidental death, while the statistics say it is 18 times more likely.

“Because of the media coverage and more readily available information about specific instances of rare events, we believe they are more likely to occur than they do.”

The conclusions are clear. We have an extremely warped view of the world. Because of the media coverage and more readily available specific instances of accidents, tornadoes, or other unusual events, we believe they are more likely to occur than something as common as regular diseases.

Availability cascade

Kahneman presents the so-called availability cascade. It is a self-sustaining chain of events based on the availability heuristic phenomenon. It starts when the media reports a minor event or a potential risk. This catches the eye of a portion of the public that gets worried. This emotional reaction itself leads to media coverage of that reaction. That produces even more worry and concern. This report leads to widespread public panic and even government action.

This cycle is often accelerated by businesses that can benefit from it, like social media companies, website owners, and others who benefit from bigger traffic to their sites and higher profits from advertisement. They use more attention-grabbing headlines and try to be outrageous as possible to attract more readers.

“We are terrible at showing the correct amount of concern correlated with the probability of harm. We either ignore the problem or overreact. Nothing in between.”

Those who try to combat this escalation with the voice of reason are simply not seen as interesting and therefore become irrelevant, regardless of how much data and facts they may have. The bigger the issue becomes, the more important it becomes for politicians who prioritize it and often overreact to show that they listen to the public. What started as a minor event became a huge political issue. We are terrible at exhibiting the correct amount of concern correlated with the probability of harm. We either ignore the problem or overreact. Nothing in between.

A good example would be terrorism. No one would argue that it is not a problem and a significant risk to western society. And yet, aside from a couple of exceptions like 9/11, the number of people killed by terrorists every year is negligible compared to the number of people who die of other causes like traffic or diseases.

The amount of coverage even the smallest of terrorist attacks gets and the government’s reaction means it is on top of our minds all the time. Therefore we believe it is a bigger risk than it actually is. The 9/11 attack was a horrible event that caused more than 3,000 lives, and it changed the way we travel. It changed how the U.S. government approached its intelligence gathering. It even significantly impacted the activities of various countries in the Middle East in the years and decades to come. No question, it was a terrible event. But compare it to the same number of people dying every day in late 2020 and 2021 in the USA from coronavirus. Did you see the same level of outrage in the media about coronavirus deaths every day? No. The deaths were already in the hundreds of thousands, so no one paid attention anymore.

While the information about terrorist attacks directly triggers the subconscious thinking that gets us acting, the creeping pandemic overloads us with data and opinions. Our conscious mind is too lazy to deal with it.

Putting it all together

Availability heuristic significantly influences the way we see the world. We get more of what we focus on. If all you do is spend your time on social media reading about disasters, crime, and pouring over hateful comments, you will get depressed and see the world at the edge of an apocalypse. If you focus on positive things in your life, you will think that life is pretty good.

Make a conscious effort to open your mind and get out of your social bubble. Listen to ideas different from yours. Meet people with various cultural, social, political, and educational backgrounds. Seek a wider variety of information and experiences. Don’t let social media companies narrow your view of the world only to the worst of humanity.

What is your take on the topic? How does the availability heuristic impact your life? What are the things you focus on? What information do you consume, and from what sources? Is it skewed towards a particular topic or opinion, so it may influence your view of the world?

Photo: geralt /

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Categories: Life

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