The availability heuristic is a heuristic (mental shortcut) that we use to make judgments or decisions based on easily accessible or memorable information. The easier it is to bring an event to mind, the higher the frequency of its occurrence.
Availability heuristic – definition
The definition of availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to make judgements based on the ease with which we can retrieve information from our memories.
In other words, when we make decisions or judgements, we tend to rely on the most readily available information rather than on more accurate or complete information. This is an example of the overconfidence bias as well.
Examples of readily available information:
- Information that is easy to memorize.
- Something that has strongly affected you or has significantly impacted you.
- A recent event that is at the forefront of your memory.
What is heuristic availability?
As explained previously, the availability heuristic (or heuristic availability) involves using the most available information as a basis for decision-making.
The availability heuristic is one of the cognitive heuristics that people use to simplify complex decisions or judgements. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that is used to simplify problems, which helps people in quickly and efficiently making decisions.
It often leads to errors and biases in judgment because people need to take their time to gather accurate information and build a complete picture of events when making a judgment or decision.
If someone is trying to estimate the likelihood of a particular event, he or she may rely on the instances of that event that most readily come to mind.
For example, if someone recently saw a news report or social media posts about an event, they may overestimate its likelihood of happening. On the other hand, if they have not seen or heard about such an event lately, they may underestimate its likelihood.
A concrete example
Let’s say you have seen several news reports about car thefts recently. That might lead you to conclude that vehicle theft is far more frequent in your neighborhood than in reality.
The availability heuristic ‘helps’ you in this instance by letting you conclude that car thefts are common in your neighborhood quickly.
Here is a list of other examples to illustrate the availability heuristic:
- After seeing news coverage about lottery winners, you start overestimating your likelihood of winning the lottery; now, you start spending more money on tickets.
- You get sick with food poisoning after eating at a particular restaurant; now, you assume that the restaurant is always unsafe, even though food poisoning is relatively rare.
- You undergo a negative experience with people of a particular race; now, you assume everyone in that group is similar.
- Several people you know have recently divorced; now, you overestimate the likelihood of your possible marriage ending in a divorce.
- You have a terrible experience with a particular product; now, you overestimate the likelihood that all products from the brand are of poor quality.
What is availability bias?
Availability bias is another term often interchangeably used with the availability heuristic.
Availability bias refers to people’s tendency to rely on information most readily available in their memories when making decisions.
This tendency can lead to errors and biases in judgment such as individuals overestimate the likelihood of certain events or outcomes.
For instance, if you hear about several shark attacks in the news, you may overestimate the likelihood of being attacked by a shark while swimming in the ocean – even though the chances of an unprovoked shark bite are slim worldwide.
This is also closely related to recency bias, which also involves placing more importance on recent information – and that can lead to overlooking relevant historical or contextual information.
Availability bias – a common cognitive bias
Availability bias is a common cognitive bias that occurs when people have limited experience or exposure to specific groups or ideas.
Suppose someone has only seen a negative portrayal of a certain ethnicity in the media. In that case, they may develop a negative view of that group, even though those portrayals may not represent the group.
This is the reason why it’s called availability bias: it leads to a biased perspective that does not accurately reflect the group.
Here is a list of additional examples of availability bias:
- You hear about a local outbreak of a rare disease; now, you overestimate the risk of contracting the disease, even though the risk is low.
- You watch news coverage of a high-profile terrorist attack; now, you overestimate the risk of an attack, even though the likelihood of being involved in one is low.
- You hear about the success of a particular medical treatment; now, you overestimate its effectiveness, even though the treatment may only be effective for some.
Availability bias occurs when people use heuristic availability
While availability heuristic and availability bias are related concepts, there is a difference between the two.
The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut used to judge based on the ease with which examples come to mind. The more easily a person can recall examples of an event, the more likely they are to believe that it occurs frequently or is highly likely.
Availability bias refers to the tendency for people to make judgments or decisions based on the information that is most readily available to them. Therefore, discrimination can occur when people use the heuristic to make judgements or decisions.
When people rely too heavily on the availability heuristic, they may overestimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can recall examples of it. This can lead to biases in judgment and decision-making.
An example of how the availability heuristic results in bias
A typical example of availability bias is the common fear of flying.
When news or social media pages excessively cover plane crashes, they often use vivid images and stories to elicit an emotional response. Although flying is safer than driving, the result of such images is that many fear flying because they remember the images from the news coverage the next time they fly.
In other words, people use the availability heuristic to judge the likelihood of airplane crashes.
Availability heuristic often leads to risk-averse behavior
According to research, the availability heuristic often leads to risk-averse behavior. In other words, people try to avoid dangerous situations due to the heuristic – even if those dangers are unlikely.
Besides affecting our decision-making for dangerous events, availability bias also appears when making decisions at work, or when someone decides to trust his gut.
The mental shortcut is used to make a decision where we might not consider all the facts equally. This leads us to make wrong assumptions or uneducated decisions.
How the availability heuristic manifests in the workplace
The availability heuristic can manifest in the workplace, where it can lead to missed opportunities, biases and errors in decision-making. This affects factors such as hiring decisions and performance evaluations.
Read examples of the availability heuristics in the workplace below.
Decisions on whom to promote at work
Imagine that a manager needs to promote someone and has narrowed the pool of candidates to two fully qualified employees with the necessary skills for the position.
But both candidates missed a critical deadline in the past.
The difference is that the second candidate made a mistake while working directly for the hiring manager – and that’s why the manager most vividly remembers the second candidate’s mistake.
The first candidate’s mistake didn’t directly affect the manager, so it’s easier for the manager to retrieve this information.
Because of the availability heuristic, the manager gives more weight to the second candidate’s mistake, which results in a promotion for the first candidate.
Job performance evaluations
Most companies usually conduct job performance reviews at a specific time of the year.
Suppose an employer had had success right before it was time for evaluations. In that case, it can benefit the employee because the manager’s most salient information about the employee’s work performance is the recently achieved great success.
As a result, the evaluation might reflect the success.
On the other hand, if the employee made a big mistake right before the review, it might negatively affect the manager’s rating, even though the employee had success at the beginning of the year.
How to avoid availability heuristic and bias
Both available heuristic and availability bias can lead to inaccurate judgements and decisions. However, some strategies can help individuals avoid or mitigate the effects of these biases.
Learn about the strategies below.
Seek out diverse sources – and look for disconfirming evidence
One way to combat the availability heuristic and availability bias is to seek out diverse sources of information before you make a decision.
Exposing yourself to a broader range of perspectives and experiences can broaden your understanding of a particular issue or topic. This can help counteract the tendency to rely on easily accessible or salient information and promote more accurate and comprehensive decision-making.
Actively looking for disconfirming evidence is also a great way to avoid confirmation and availability bias.
Challenge stereotypes and assumptions
The availability heuristic and availability bias can manifest as negative stereotypes and assumptions about particular groups.
You need to challenge such stereotypes and assumptions to avoid these biases actively. This involves seeking information that contradicts these stereotypes or conversing with individuals with different perspectives and experiences.
Reflect on the accuracy of the available information
Another strategy is to reflect on the accuracy and completeness of available information.
Instead of making a hasty decision based on the first piece of information that comes to mind, you can take a step back and consider alternative sources of information. This involves seeking additional information or perspectives or simply reflecting on your assumptions and biases.
You can put less importance on the vivid examples that come to mind and put more weight on the less striking evidence.