This Mental Shortcut is Ruining Your Judgment on a Daily Basis
What to do about the availability heuristic
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What are the world’s biggest issues? Most of us don’t even know. What we do know is what we hear people talking about or see in news stories. This is why so many of us have such an irrational fear of flying. In his book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed not only writes an excellent book on the psychology behind making better decisions, but he makes a great argument about why flying is one of the top industries for analyzing issues and correcting them.
If I asked you if you can think of a story about a plane crash and a bunch of people dying, you probably could without even drawing on too much cognitive effort.
Something that soothes my flying anxiety is that I remember that each year, 1.35 million people die in car accidents, and about 20 to 50 million suffer non-fatal injuries. This isn’t to give you anxiety about driving, either. This is actually something that’s helped me with my anxiety. Why we’re able to recall plane crashes more than car crashes is due to something called the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is also known as the availability bias, and it’s a mental shortcut that we all use that relies on examples that come to mind the easiest.
A more current example is around COVID vaccines. If you talk to anyone who is hesitant about vaccines, they may reference the people who died from blood clots or an anecdotal story about a “friend”. Or, they may pull a Nicki Minaj and tell you about their cousin’s friend who got swollen testicles from the vaccine. Even in instances where the side effects are proven, the reality is that the data shows that these are rare and the potential risks of the vaccine far outweigh the risk of getting COVID while unvaccinated.
System one thinking is a bitch, but we rely on it constantly because our brain doesn’t like to put in more effort than it needs to. We notice and recognize things that are in our faces on a regular basis, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s as common as our mind tells us. When it comes to plane crashes or rare vaccine side effects, it doesn’t matter where it happens in the world, it becomes international news. Imagine if the news publicized every fatal car accident from around the world and sensationalized it as much as plane crashes. It’d be overwhelming. So, even though plane crashes are far less common than we think, we’re much for afraid to fly than drive.
The availability heuristic isn’t just about safety though, it can cause issues in our relations. How many couples argue about who does more around the house? Well, due to the availability heuristic, you remember more of what you do than what your partner does, so it’s easier to bring it to mind. In one psychological study, couples were interviewed separately and asked what percentage of the housework they do. What the researchers found was that a majority of people believe they do over 50% of the housework. You don’t need a calculator to realize that it’s impossible for two people in a house to do over 50% of the housework.
One personal experience I’ve been thinking about was the six years I spent as a service advisor in my early 20s at car dealerships. My entire job was to sell car repairs and maintenance. When you’re working eight to 12 hours per day and 90% of the Fords come in are broken, it made me think that all fords are hunks of junk. Now, don’t get me wrong, Fords do suck, but working in the service department made me think that the problem is way more prevalent than it actually is, thanks to the availability heuristic.
This is also an issue we have when it comes to generalizations as well. Again, our brains like to take shortcuts in combination with other cognitive flaws. So, we often cause our own frustrations when we think, “Ugh! I always do more work than everyone else on my team at the office.” Maybe you do, or maybe it’s just that you have your work efforts more readily available in your mind than you do the others on your team.
I also recognized that this happens based on the people or information we surround ourselves with. For years, my primary focus was on mental health and addiction. Due to the availability heuristic, the world seemed like a much darker place than it actually was. Since I was working at a dual diagnosis rehab for people with addictions and mental health issues, it felt like everyone was struggling, and it could put me into a dark headspace. During this time, I was also running a mental health YouTube channel, and I was constantly reading books about mental health issues to help my audience.
Don’t get me wrong, we have a mental health and addiction crisis that’s been going on for decades. But when you’re constantly “in it”, it’s difficult to take a step back and solve problems from a big-picture perspective. Think about how this affects you and who you hang out with as well. If you’re only hanging out with self-centered people, you think everyone is self-centered. If you only hang out with people who don’t have problems, you think the world is fine. This cognitive shortcut can also reduce how often we think issues like racism, sexism, domestic and sexual violence occur.
System one, intuitive thinking is there for a very good reason, but it makes us minimize issues, over-estimate problems, and make all sorts of terrible decisions. Something I personally do to counteract the availability heuristic is to do a quick Google search of the statistics. I’m no math genius, but I know that a one-in-a-million probability is a pretty low risk. So, whether it’s coming across data or how you make decisions in daily life, take a step back and recognize the availability heuristic to see if it’s skewing how you’re perceiving the situation.
I’ve been working on organizing all the books I’ve read, and I have multiple lists of books on becoming a better thinker. There are lists for education, social issues, critical thinking, self-deception, and biases. For the rest of the categories, click here.
I’m always open for a conversation and to be shown what I might be missing or where I may be wrong, so feel free to email me at TheRewiredSoul@gmail.com