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GuidesEmployee experienceAvailability Heuristic: Overview, Bias, and Examples

Availability Heuristic: Overview, Bias, and Examples

Last updated

16 November 2023

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Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions when time or information is limited. The availability heuristic is a type of heuristic where people use information that comes to mind quickly to make decisions about the future.

For example, we can use it to explain why many people overestimate their probability of winning the lottery. People usually buy more lottery tickets after someone wins a large jackpot, although the odds remain very low. That positive news is readily available in their minds, making them feel they have a better chance of winning.

How the availability heuristic works

When making a decision, a related recent memory of the situation might immediately spring into your thoughts. Most people believe that if they can easily remember something, it must be important, and they tend to give this information more weight and overestimate the likelihood of similar events happening in the future. Even when all relevant information is available, instead of taking time to investigate it in greater depth, the availability heuristic may simplify the decision-making process and go with what comes to mind quickly.

For example, after watching a news report about robberies, you may conclude robberies are much more common in your area than they are. The availability heuristic allows people to arrive at a decision quickly but at the expense of careful thought.

Examples of the availability heuristic

Here are some scenarios where the availability heuristic can play out in day-to-day life:

Safety

People often overestimate the risk of some events like plane crashes, terrorist attacks, or even contracting a rare disease, but they underestimate the risk of others like car crashes and cancer. This is often caused by sensationalized media coverage, which leads to your mind readily bringing up the associated images and examples.

Insurance rates

There's usually a spike in insurance rates after disasters like hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes. These events receive extensive media coverage and are readily available in people's minds, making people think that disasters are more frequent than they are. More people move to get insurance coverage, prompting the insurance companies to adjust the rates.

Word frequency

Since it is easier to think of words starting with the letter k than those that have k as the third letter, most people assume that there are more words in the former category. However, there are about twice as many words with k as the third letter. This shows the availability heuristic can lead to a predictable error.

How does the availability heuristic create bias?

The availability heuristic is sometimes called the availability bias. A bias is an inclination, feeling, or predisposition towards or against someone or something that is not based on fact or reason. 

When making decisions based on the availability heuristic, we rely more on emotion, feeling, or intuition than fact. While the ease of recall is useful when assessing probability, it often leads to bias since you may not consider important factors.

Avoiding the availability heuristic improves decision-making

The availability heuristic allows you to make decisions quickly, but it also increases the likelihood you’ll make bad decisions. It keeps you stuck in the same cognitive-bias mentality. 

You can mitigate potentially negative effects of the availability heuristic by considering all the useful data when making decisions under uncertainty, and not just the information that comes readily to mind.

You’ll become a more informed decision-maker when you can recognize how the availability bias influences your first thoughts. That way, you can pause and carefully evaluate all the data available to make an informed decision.

Examples of decisions using the availability heuristic in the workplace

The availability heuristic can impact decision-making in the workplace in the following ways:

Deciding who to promote to a new leadership position

Let's say the manager of a company wants to promote an employee to a leadership position. They have narrowed down the candidates to two individuals. Both candidates are qualified and have good leadership skills. They have both made similar mistakes in the past. The first candidate forgot to deliver an important package before going on a trip. The second candidate made a similar mistake when directly working for the hiring manager.

The manager will remember the mistake of the second candidate more vividly and, due to the availability heuristic, give the mistake more weight. The manager will intuitively promote the first candidate, although both had previously made identical mistakes.

Considering new employment opportunities

Imagine you are planning to leave your current job for a new one. The company where you work has made some budget cuts recently that led to several of your workmates losing their jobs. You were also demoted to your old position. You then read about similar experiences by other employees in the company you plan to switch to.

Since those events did not directly affect you, and the memory readily available in your mind is your recent demotion, you may still prefer to switch to the new firm since you believe your chances of losing the job are low. In reality, the new firm is not necessarily a safer choice since they have the same employee retention problems as your current employer.

Practical tips for overcoming the availability bias

Let’s look at some ways to overcome the availability heuristic and make more informed decisions:

Avoid making impulse decisions or judgments

Whenever you have to make a quick decision, take some time to think about it. Ask yourself what is informing that decision and where your judgment of the situation is coming from. For example, let's say you are booking a hotel for an upcoming conference. Your company has done business with that hotel in the past, and you received good service. But as you are about to call the hotel, you remember a recent story from a family member about a bad experience at a hotel in the same chain, although in a different location.

If you follow the availability heuristic, you might decide to organize the conference elsewhere. However, you should pause and consider all the facts. For instance, you may know that the family member in question has a penchant for exaggerating. You also know your company has never complained about this hotel chain. In the end, you may conclude the chances of having a bad experience at that hotel are low.

Clear out your echo chambers

To make objective decisions, always seek information sources that may not necessarily agree with your beliefs. For example, get news updates from somewhere other than your favorite media station. If you only get your data from sources that are in line with your beliefs, they'll just reinforce them. Always make an effort to think critically by seeking out different points of view and challenging your own biases.

Recent events may, at times, change your perception of reality. But long-time patterns and trends can tell you a different story. For instance, let's say you are a manager with an employee who has been coming to work late. Before deciding what to do, look at the person's patterns. If they have rarely been late for work in previous years, it may be a short-term issue. Ask them how you can support them and help resolve the issue. However, if the pattern shows they have been regularly late during their time in the company, you may need to take a different approach.

Consider overall statistics

Knowing a few left-handed people does not mean that most people in the world are left-handed. Do not rely on the people close to you when determining the probability of something. Instead, research to find the base rate. The people in your life form a small sample that does not reflect reality.

Representativeness bias

Representativeness bias happens when we determine the probability that an event will occur based on its similarity with a known situation. For example, customer service representatives may assume customers from a certain demographic or age group will have specific preferences based on stereotypes instead of approaching them as individual people with unique needs.

Anchoring/adjustment bias

Anchoring bias or adjustment bias occurs when you use a single piece of information to make a decision or solve a problem. People often make inaccurate estimates due to the incorrect adjustments from their initial value.

FAQs

What is the difference between the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic?

The availability heuristic means you determine the likelihood of an event based on your ability to recall similar events. The makes you estimate the likelihood of an event based on how it resembles a known situation.

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