"A strong memory is commonly coupled with infirm judgement"

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!

The Main Characters of the Story

The fundamental theory that is necessary to understand rational (and irrational) thinking is the concept of dual modes of thinking that we all employ on a daily basis: System 1 and System 2.. System 1 is fast, intuitive, creative, emotional and error-prone.  When we are tired and depleted, we usually rely on System 1, because it is nearly effortless decision making.  If you’re blearily watching infomercials at 2:00 am and you really want to buy the Shake Weight, then your System 1 is probably dominating your thinking, as your effortful System 2 fell asleep before Letterman.

Conversely, System 2 is slow, analytical, and lazy, because it requires a relatively large amount of energy.  This is where most of our analytical thinking takes place, and System 2 will kick in if it detects that System 1 is about to make an error in judgment.  For a demonstration of this, quickly answer this question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Did you say (or want to say) 10 cents?  Good answer, except that it’s incorrect.  Your System 1 overpowered your thought processes, and your System 2 didn’t catch the error.   The actual answer is 5 cents.  If you got that answer right off the bat, then you’re in the roughly 20% of people that don’t often make those errors.  It is obvious once you think about it for a minute, but if you didn’t use your System 2, you were probably caught in the trap (don’t worry if you were....I was caught the first time I too!).

Now try this question:

If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

The expected System 1 answer is 100 minutes, but the correct answer is 5 minutes (think about it.....got it?).  Though chances are higher you got this answer correct just because the strike-through make it a bit harder to read (or perhaps because you were cued by the earlier question...).  Studies show that inducing cognitive strain, such as making the question smaller and harder to read, increased performance on these questions.   For example, in a Princeton study, 90% of students missed at least one question in a series of these questions dubbed the Cognitive Reflection Test – developed by Shane Frederick at MIT – but when they made the font smaller and harder to read, only 35% missed at least one question.  This shows CAN trick our mind into using System 2, but sometimes it just takes a little cajoling!

Now, you must wonder how this applies to your life?  These two systems are unconsciously used in tandem, sometimes to negative effects.  For example, one study of parole judges found that the success rate of parole applicants depended solely on when the judges had last eaten.  The success rate was highest just after a break, and slowly descended to near 0% until the next break.  In this instance, as judges grew weary, their System 1 processes took over, and they clearly did not consider all parole applicants equally.  Consider this effect the next time you’re considering a pile of proposals or grading a stack of papers, as  your judgments will probably be subconsciously influenced by the amount of time since your last coffee break.

We like to think that we are all rational creatures, and in the right environments with the right stimuli, we are.  However, it has become increasingly apparent that our minds are incredibly susceptible to influences and biases of which most of society is unaware.  Breaking this guise of rationality is what earned Daniel Kahneman his Nobel Prize.

So, the next time you see an advertisement that is in large, easy to read letters, remember that it is aimed at taking advantage of your impulsive and emotional System 1, and that you should moderate your response with a brief moment of System 2 thought (and all it takes is a minute!).  With enough practice and experience, you can inform your System 1’s intuition so that you don’t end up buying that tchotchke at the grocery store checkout line just because it’s on sale.  I challenge you to look around in your own world and examine how you use System 1 and System 2 to make decisions in your own life.

Until next time...thank you for reading!


Sources and Further Reading:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow