Quick, answer this question:
How are you more likely to die: by shark attack or getting struck by lightning?
Actually, before you think about that, let’s back up.
Have you ever seen the classic Steven Spielberg movie, Jaws? You know the one:
Here’s the movie poster:
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, most people tend to come to the same conclusion: death by shark attack is way more likely than death by lightning. There are so many sharks and people swimming in the ocean … right?
Actually, you’re 10x more likely to die from lightning than a shark attack. So why do most people answer incorrectly? That’s due to a little something called the availability heuristic.
Here’s how it works:
When we first asked the question (before we started talking about Jaws), your mind probably recalled news stories about shark attacks, memories of watching “Shark Week”, or maybe even Jaws itself.
Those are vivid and easily accessible memories. And of course we primed the pump by feeding you visuals of sharks attacking humans. Between what your brain was already pulling up and the cues we offered, it was hard NOT to think about shark attacks.
This most likely made you assume shark attacks are more common than they actually are. In truth, there are only 5 deaths a year worldwide, on average, from unprovoked shark attacks.
So, what is the availability heuristic exactly … and why can it make our thinking so inaccurate? Let’s, ahem, sink our teeth in. 😉
The availability heuristic is the tendency to believe that, if you see something in front of you and/or remember it easily, it must be more common and important than it really is.
This is especially true with negative events, like shark attacks. We tend to give highly memorable negative events a lot of weight – far too much, actually. And it not only affects our opinions, but also our decisions and behavior.
Wow! So this is scientifically proven?
Yup. Social Psychology research legends Tversky and Kahneman began conducting studies on the phenomenon starting in the ‘70s. One study asked people to estimate if more words in English began with the letter K than words that had K as the third letter.
70% of respondents guessed more words started with K. In truth, there are far more works with K as the third letter (ankle, ink, fake, etc.) But because people tended to more easily remember words beginning with K (kiss, karaoke, kickass), they assumed there were generally more of those.
An example of it happening in real life was after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006. That year, people all over the country started buying flood insurance at a much higher rate. That included many people who lived in areas where floods were highly unlikely.
But the constant news coverage about Katrina made the concept of “catastrophic flooding” much stickier in people’s brains. And, after eing inundated with dramatic Katrina images, their assumption of perceived risk outweighed the actual risk of flooding in their home.
How it affects us
The availability heuristic has an impact on our everyday decision-making and how we interact with others.
It can make us shy away, for example, from behavior we perceive as being risky – even when the danger is minimal. A classic example is flying. Even though you’re FAR more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than a plane crash, most of us don’t think twice about getting behind the wheel. But a ton of us are very nervous fliers.
The availability heuristic can also affect how you make more common decisions. Let’s say you’re deciding between two people at your company for a promotion. One of them is slightly more qualified. But a couple of years ago, they made a mistake on a project you both worked on. That mistake wasn’t anything huge, but it’s something you happen to remember clearly. Because that one example is easily accessible in your mind, you’re more likely to weigh it heavily in the deliberation. So you give the other person the job, despite being less qualified.
And this extends beyond hiring. You might hear two points of view and choose to believe one person based on readily available (but ultimately unrelated) associations.
Getting out of the echo chamber
The availability heuristic is another reason why so many people find themselves ensconced in a never-ending echo chamber regarding all things political, social, etc.
If you spend much time on social media, you know what we mean. Often we end up hearing points of view that mostly reaffirm our existing beliefs, and rarely are exposed to alternative points of view.
If we’re reading people's opinions online, for example, we’re more likely to recall facts and anecdotes that are “sticky” (emotionally charged and very memorable). Also: the things that “prove” we’re right stick with us more, and end up becoming the most readily available info we recall and give weight to.
As a result, we’re more likely to feel our opinions and points of view are correct — which then makes it harder to have a reasonable conversation with people who might not agree with us.
How to avoid it
As with many cognitive biases, one of the best defenses against it is simply being aware that it's happening. So if you find yourself jumping to a fast conclusion, using an emotionally charged example, or making a quick association ... try to slow your brain down and think through things logically.
Another strategy comes from Kahneman and Tversky, and is known as "red teaming" (a.k.a., playing devil's advocate). If a group is involved in decision-making, assign one person to act as devil's advocate and challenge the group's POV, regardless of whether that person believes the devil's advocate position or not. (Need help? Check out our blog post on how to play devil's advocate without being a jerk.)
And finally, do your homework and look for actual, large-scale data – not just personal anecdotes.
Now get out there and swim off the coast of Cape Cod without fear!