Mental Shortcuts - Availability

Availability Bias

Availability bias is a well-known cognitive bias that can have a significant impact on how we make decisions. It’s a tendency to rely on the examples that come to mind easily when evaluating the likelihood of an event occurring. This can lead to an inaccurate estimation of risk and can impact the decisions we make.

For example, if someone says “I know a guy who lives in Cape Town and has never had any problems with crime,” this may lead us to believe that Cape Town is a safe place to live. However, this statement is just an anecdote, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation. Similarly, if someone says “smoking isn’t so bad, my uncle has smoked for 50 years and he is still alive,” this does not mean that smoking is not harmful. These types of statements are flawed because they don’t provide any statistical evidence to back up the claim.

The availability bias can also impact the way we perceive risk. When we hear about a rare event, such as a shark attack, on the news, we may overestimate the likelihood of it happening to us. This is because the news is readily available to us, and it’s easy to recall the story. However, we may underestimate the likelihood of more common causes of death, such as cancer or heart disease. This is because these events are less likely to be reported in the news, and therefore less readily available to us.

The impact of availability bias can be even more significant if the information is closer to us in proximity. For example, if we hear that a friend of a cousin was attacked by a shark, we may perceive the risk of being attacked by a shark as higher than we would have otherwise. This can lead to an irrational fear of flying or swimming in the ocean.

To mitigate the impact of availability bias, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate all the available information. This means actively seeking out relevant information and not just relying on the examples that come to mind easily. We must also acknowledge the limitations of our memory and the potential impact of proximity on our perception of risk.

By taking these steps, we can make more informed decisions and avoid the pitfalls of availability bias. It’s important to remember that the reality of a situation is not always reflected in the examples that come to mind easily. We must actively seek out relevant information and evaluate it objectively before making a decision.

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