Salient events are easier to remember, so we give them more importance in our decisions. Psychologists call this simple fact “the Availability heuristic”, which is a cognitive bias.
Remember that cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that help us survive in a dangerous world, but they fool us in a complicated one. When you see a lion in the Serengeti, you need to run without thinking. But when you decide to buy a car, it would be better to avoid running to buy the one you see frequently in the ads and think thoroughly before making the decision.
Examples of the Availability Heuristic
Salient memories from one’s experience will impact its future decision, when searching for a job, a neighborhood, a partner, a vacation destination, etc. We focus on that specific event and forget about the rest. We make a poor decision, and we often regret it.
Plane crashes are so rare that everyone knows about them when they happen. Yet they seem to horrify people much more than car accidents, which cause many more victims… Sharks, Tsunamis, Terrorist attacks, etc. These are a salient cause of death, but they have, by far, the least number of victims compared to car accidents or medical errors.
The media are an enormous « availability bias » machine. Journalists and reporters are both victims and contributors to this social phenomenon. A journalist that reports “a plane departing from Berlin had landed safely in CDG airport this afternoon” will most probably lose his job.
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”
Avoid the trap
To avoid the trap of the availability heuristic, consider the following tips:
- Do your research, seek facts, numbers, statistics.
- Look for contrary examples.
- Pause, think, don’t make a “now or never” kind of decision.
- Ask for an opinion, an outside view.
Note: This is a part of the series “Outsmart Your Biases“.