Think of all of the fatal plane crashes you hold in recent memory.  Now, think of all of the fatal car accidents you hold in recent memory.  Which was easier to remember more of?  Most likely, it was easier to think of plane crashes than car crashes.  Statistically, the fatality rate of drivers in the US is 1 in 6800, while the rate for airline passengers is 1 in 1.6 million.  These statistics paint a very clear picture – flying in the long run is statistically much safer than driving, by about three orders of magnitude. (Source: http://newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen99/gen99845.htm) Nevertheless, the fear of flying is much more prevalent than the fear of driving.  Airplane accidents (fatal and otherwise) are well publicized and repetitively engrained in our minds by the media, so naturally we can recall them much easier than car accidents.

Availability bias is basically what it sounds like: we are very susceptible to the information readily available to us, or to information that we recently acquired.  This comes into play if you sometimes feel more afraid of flying after you hear about an airplane crash.  While the chances of dying from a plane crash are very small, you feel like the chances are higher because of the recent accident, even though the statistical chance of you being affected by a plane crash has not changed at all. Knowing this does not remove the fear (who doesn’t feel a little uneasy when a plane is flying through heavy turbulence?) but it does provide some reasoning behind it.

One interesting side effect of this availability bias is that we often evaluate the validity of facts based on how easy they are to recall.  In a study done by Norbert Schwarts, he asked one group of subjects these questions:

  • First, list six instances in which you behaved assertively
  • Next, evaluate how assertive you are

He then asked a second group for twelve instances in which they behaved assertively.  This second group rated their assertiveness lower than the first group (who were just requested to list six).  The explanation for this is that twelve instances of assertiveness would not as easily spring to mind as just six.    When it was easier to complete the task of listing instances of assertiveness, the subjects thought of themselves as more assertive.

Most disconcertingly, we more easily believe things if they are easily recalled, even if those facts are untrue.  In other words, if you tell a lie enough times, people will start to believe it, simply because that idea is easily accessible in your mind.  Worst of all, we may not even realize our views are shifting, or that our views were ever different.  Daniel Kahneman articulates this best:

“A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed.  Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before you mind changed” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 202).

A study of young children found that they were physically unable to recall past beliefs.  For instance, children were shown a box that seemingly contained candy, however when they opened it, they found pencils.  When asked what they thought was in the box before opening it, they said “pencils,” not candy, as one would expect.  This suggests that being able to recall beliefs before one changes their mind is something that is learned later in life (or for some, never at all?).

Availability bias a powerful tool that the media and politicians harness to influence the public. Political groups spread a unified message across media outlets, and as a result it becomes easily accessible and engrained in your memory, whether or not you agree with it.  Over time, this idea incubates and subconsciously influence your views or voting choices.  Moreover, politicians always associate complex government issues with relatable problems, such as impacts on seniors or veterans, as your gullible System 1 can easily associate these ideas to friends or family, bypassing the analytical System 2 and thereby fast tracking ideas to slots in your memory.

Availability bias is one of the most powerful subconscious biases that affect our minds, but fortunately through being aware of it, we can more effectively filter and process the information that we pull into our brain on a daily basis.  Go forth armed with this knowledge, and let me know of ways you might be falling for availability bias!