How many words can you recall which start with the alphabet K? Think of 5 words as you can.
Now can you come up 5 words which have k as the 3rd alphabet?
Not quite easy, is it?
How many words do you think start with K and how many have k as the 3rd alphabet? The number of words that start with K should outnumber the words having K as the 3rd alphabet. The same applies to other alphabets too but you just fell victim to the availability bias.
Hold on to your answer as we move to the next question. Go through the list of people below.
Are you familiar with most, if not all the celebrities on the list?
Guess what? A majority(10/19) of the people on the list are not celebrities but random names. Did you not think that all or most of the people on the list were celebrities?
Likewise, most people would easily recall words that start with k like king, kitchen, kitten, kangaroo or kit. You would need a few extra moments to recall words having the third alphabet k such as ask, make or acknowledge.
However, you will find it surprising to know that the number of words that have the third alphabet k is 3 times more than the words which start with k.
But you assumed quite the opposite. You believe so because of the flaw of your brain called the availability bias or the availability heuristic.
I am writing a set of posts to help you identify how your brain plays games with you. This article is on the topic – The Availability Bias. You can read about all the cognitive biases of the mind.
- What is availability bias?
- Examples of Availability Bias
- How Availability bias effects you?
- How to overcome the availability bias?
What is availability bias?
Availability bias is our tendency to give more importance to the cases which are easy to remember. You assume cases easier to remember as available in plenty or the truth.
For example, since you remember more alphabets starting with k, you assume English has more words starting with k without checking.
We generalize based on what comes to our mind or recently available information. The human mind looks to complete a task using the path of least effort. Thus, easily available information can influence the actions or the decisions you make.
Examples of Availability Bias
Here are some examples of the availability bias in the world around you.
1. Doctors/Consultants deciding based on prior results
A patient can show up at a hospital and shows 10 different symptoms. 6 of them match the symptoms of flu and 4 of them do not. If the doctor cannot map the 10 symptoms to a different ailment, chances are the doctor will diagnose the patient to have flu.
The right action for the doctor is to accept that he cannot figure out the real ailment by trying different tests. However, the doctor might feel the urge to go by prior available cases of flu.
Consultants or other experts are equally likely to fall victim to the availability bias too. If you hire a consultant to figure out why the paint of your walls keeps peeling off and he does not know why the consultant is unlikely to tell you “I don’t know.” The consultant will pick one of his most familiar method or reason even if it may not apply to this case.
2. QWERTY Keyboard
You use the QWERTY keyboard named after the first 5 alphabets on it. Have you wondered why the alphabets are arranged in such a bizarre fashion on your keyboard? We type on it like a monkey happy to spot a banana without asking why a banana is the way it is.
The reason for the arrangement of keys in the QWERTY order goes back to the time of manual typewriters.
Placing commonly used keys close to each other caused collision or lead to the jumbling of the typewriter machinery. The commonly used keys were placed far apart to prevent jumbling up which slowed typists down. In today’s world, we do not face that problem anymore.
Though many people have invented keyboard layouts which made typing easier, they failed to sell in huge volumes. We love the available QWERTY layout. We do not want to go through a new keyboard which will help us better in the long run.
3. Glorified love stories
If I ask you “Tell me the best love story you know about”, you will either name Romeo and Juliet or Cleopatra and Mark Antony. You rate it as the best because you associate dramatic stories with greatness. Since the love stories contain extreme scenarios of a lover giving up their lives or dying, we glorify such stories. You consider them better than normal love stories.
In a story where the person makes a mistake, leaves his partner behind and finally makes a huge sacrifice to reunite, we shed silent tears and empty a box of tissues. We go on to tell people how touching and beautiful the story was.
The stories where the partners stayed together in sickness and in health, for richer and in poorer, for better or for worse, till death do them part, seem like boring love stories.
Every relationship has its own challenges. Every relationship involves sacrifices. Yet, only the dramatic ones get the tag of a premium love story.
How Availability bias effects you?
Availability bias effects in more ways than you think. You think fast, decide fast and act fast. Our minds like to jump to conclusions and make a decision quickly. In the real world, quick actions keep us alive by running away from a lion or stepping away from a speeding vehicle.
But, you can make a quick bad decision by only taking into account the information which was readily available in your head.
Here are some cases where you make strange decisions and choices due to the availability bias.
1. Worrying about flying in a plane
Do you worry about a crash every time you step into a flight? I do not know your thoughts, but I worry a bit each time I board a flight. Even though I know flights follow high safety standards, I have a small worry that the plane might nose dive or collide into another plane.
Do you know that the chances of a person dying in a plane crash are 1 in 25 million? Compare that with the chances of dying in a car crash which is 1 in 5000. Even in a flight, the chances of flight crashing during taking off and landing are the highest. But we worry thinking the flight might blow apart into smithereens mid-air which is even more unlikely.
2. Overestimating risks of dramatic problems and underestimating risks of simple problems:
Like a flight crash, we associate more risk with dramatic danger. When a shark attack happens, we bid bye-bye to swimming. Many people feared to step into the seas after the Bethany Hamilton shark attack in 2003.
You must know that as per math, you are more likely to win a Nobel prize than being attacked by a shark.
You also associate more risks with rape in a cab, midnight burglary, cold-blooded murder, terror attacks or tornadoes.
The real chances of such scenarios occurring are like finding a needle in a haystack or even worse. The chances of dying by Asthma are 20 times higher than being killed by a tornado. Millions of cab rides complete safely while one odd one involves a rape. The chances of you dying by murder is 1 in 19,000 while one in 8 men die from a heart attack.
Yet, you find it more necessary to safeguard ourselves from dramatic risks than the less spectacular issues. You secure our houses with massive locks, avoid taking cabs in the night, stay away from places prone to terror attacks or tornadoes to prevent death by any of these cases.
But you ignore the importance of working out. You worry more about keeping your houses secure to prevent burglary or murder but forget to workout. Given that you are far more likely to die from a heart attack than a terror attack, shouldn’t you worry about exercise more than terrorists?
We keep our doors locked to reduce the risk of an already unlikely case of murder. Inside our secure homes, we sip on a glass of scotch and take a puff of a Cuban cigar feeling safe. Little do you know that you are increasing the risk of an already likely heart attack and cancer.
You place way more weight on the dramatic deaths than the common but less newsworthy deaths.
3. Hoping to win a lottery ticket
Many people buy lottery tickets because they believe that is the only way to retire with comfort. In the lottery game where you choose 6 out of 49 numbers, the chances of you winning the jackpot are one in 14 million. As per the math you need to buy 1000 tickets a day for the next 38 years to win the jackpot. Of course, you will also need to spend more money than the prize money of the jackpot itself.
Yet, people believe they have a realistic shot at winning the jackpot looking at the picture of a common man who won the jackpot recently.
4. Not facing tough issues in meetings
During the meetings you conduct, you like to go through the overall details. You convince yourself that everything is running as per the plan.
You prefer to ignore the hard questions which can improve the business and deliver better results.
We prefer to lay in the comfort of readily available information such as ratings received by customers and the graphs which show a reasonable increase in sales. We do not want to indulge in the healthy debate of challenging ourselves to find solutions. We fail to identify problems that aren’t apparent or innovate for better results.
5. Overconfidence in the stock market
In the stock market, you make decisions based on recent data. If the market is on the rise, you love to buy stocks. If the market is on the way to a crash, you sell to cut your losses.
The most successful stock market investors are skeptical when the market is on the rise and buy at a bargain price when the market goes through a crash.
The available information tells you whether the market is rising or falling right now. Because human beings take the path of least effort, you take a quick decision. You prefer not to dive deep and look at the reports of the company, competitors and the industry before making a decision. You prefer making a decision based on the information available at your fingertips.
6. Believing that your idea is the next big thing
Sometimes your brain has a flash of an idea. You believe the idea will join you into the rank of the billionaires. The available information tells you that the idea is first of its kind, has a market for all people around the world, seems interesting and whatnot.
You do not consider similar ideas that have failed. You do not look at other factors such as region, locality, supply/demand which determine your success. When you feel too confident about your own idea in a short period, remember:
Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you haveEmile Charter
How to overcome the availability bias?
Like most other cognitive biases, you cannot prevent such thoughts from occurring. You will always worry about a plane crash somewhere in the corner of your mind, do everything to prevent being murdered, raped, burgled or attacked by a terrorist. And you should.
You also need to look beyond the scenarios of readily available information. Consider the possibility of making an incorrect decision based on such information.
Here are some things you can do to fight the bias.
1. Consider events not so dramatic
Consider the gravity of less dramatic outcomes such as heart attacks, asthma, obesity, blood pressure, and car accidents. You need to pay more importance to stay fit by working out than trying to prevent your death from a bomb planted by a terrorist.
2. Consider negative cases
Every time you feel like making a decision based on readily available information consider the negative cases. For example, consider
- the number of people who swim without any shark attacking them
- those who live safely without any armed security guard
- the people who go on a vacation without facing a bullet from a terrorist
You will find an awful lot of people who do not face such extreme scenarios. In fact, you might not even know the person who faced an extreme scenario. But you know a ton of people who did not face anything so dramatic. You should calm your nerves.
3. Look for beyond what is available
When a decision seems obvious, take a step back and think again. For example, all it takes is a Google search of fewer than 30 seconds to tell you whether more words start with k or have it as the third alphabet. Of course, this is not an important decision but you can apply the thought process to important cases.
You can avail the internet today at the tip of your fingers and look at a plethora of information in a matter of a few seconds. Use the content to make a well-informed decision.
4. Use checklists
We love to believe in our intelligence. We love to assume we are too smart to use checklists. We love to convince ourselves that we rarely make mistakes.
You and I need to accept the fact that we miss simple validations and tests. For the same reason, smart pilots have a 30 item checklist to verify before taking off.
You can take a leaf out of their book and use a checklist before buying a stock, making an investment or spending on an expensive item. The checklist does not have to be as complex as the one used to launch a rocket into space. You can a far simpler checklist like:
- Is it worth the money?
- Will it matter 5 days later?
- Can I bear the consequences of losing it all?
- What is the cost of not making the decision?
5. Ask for a second opinion
I know you think you are smart. I do too. But it does not hurt to ask for a second opinion.
Evaluate the scenario and use your best judgment. In some cases, you have to make a tough decision without seeking a second opinion. But such cases are rare. Again, do not generalize because Henry Ford said: “If I asked people what they want, they would ask for a faster horse.”
In real life, asking for a second opinion helps you avoid mistakes. In cases where you can form a team to solve a problem, proceed to do so. Gather all the information and opinions from various people. If you still believe your hunch was right after considering all opinions without bias, you can proceed further.
You can never convince your mind to stop making quick decisions. You can never stop your mind from feeding you with easily available information. You can never prevent your mind from recalling the most recent and dramatic incidents first.
What you can do is tell yourself that your brain is under the influence of availability bias.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.