Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All
Smoking can’t be that bad for you: My grandfather smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be more than a hundred.” Or: “Manhattan is really safe. I know someone who lives in the middle of the Village and he never locks his door. Not even when he goes on vacation, and his apartment has never been broken into.” We use statements like these to try to prove something, but they actually prove nothing at all. When we speak like this, we succumb to the availability bias.
Are there more English words that start with a k or more words with k as its third letter? Answer: More than twice as many English words have k in the third position than start with a k. Why do most people believe the opposite is true? Because we can think of words beginning with a k more quickly. They are more available to our memory.
The availability bias says this: We create a picture of the world using the examples that most easily come to mind. This is idiotic, of course, because in reality, things don’t happen more frequently just because we can conceive of them more easily.
Thanks to the availability bias, we travel through life with an incorrect risk map in our heads. Thus, we systematically overestimate the risk of being the victims of a plane crash, a car accident, or a murder. And we underestimate the risk of dying from less spectacular means, such as diabetes or stomach cancer. The chances of bomb attacks are much rarer than we think, and the chances of suffering depression are much higher. We attach too much likelihood to spectacular, flashy, or loud outcomes. Anything silent or invisible we downgrade in our minds. Our brains imagine showstopping outcomes more readily than mundane ones. We think dramatically, not quantitatively.
Doctors often fall victim to the availability bias. They have their favorite treatments, which they use for all possible cases. More appropriate treatments may exist, but these are in the recesses of the doctors’ minds. Consequently, they practice what they know. Consultants are no better. If they come across an entirely new case, they do not throw up their hands and sigh: “I really don’t know what to tell you.” Instead, they turn to one of their more familiar methods, whether or not it is ideal.
If something is repeated often enough, it gets stored at the forefront of our minds. It doesn’t even have to be true. How often did the Nazi leaders have to repeat the term “the Jewish question” before the masses began to believe that it was a serious problem? You simply have to utter the words “UFO,” “life energy,” or “karma” enough times before people start to credit them.
The availability bias has an established seat at the corporate board’s table, too. Board members discuss what management has submitted—usually quarterly figures—instead of more important things, such as a clever move by the competition, a slump in employee motivation, or an unexpected change in customer behavior. They tend not to discuss what’s not on the agenda. In addition, people prefer information that is easy to obtain, be it economic data or recipes. They make decisions based on this information rather than on more relevant but harder-to-obtain information—often with disastrous results. For example, we have known for ten years that the so-called Black-Scholes formula for the pricing of derivative financial products does not work. But we don’t have another solution, so we carry on with an incorrect tool. It is as if you were in a foreign city without a map, and then pulled out one for your hometown and simply used that. We prefer wrong information to no information. Thus, the availability bias has presented the banks with billions in losses.
What was it that Frank Sinatra sang—something about loving the girl I’m near when I’m not near the girl I love? A perfect example of the availability bias. Fend it off by spending time with people who think differently than you do—people whose experiences and expertise are different from yours. We require others’ input to overcome the availability bias.