Most of us have someone dropping us off at an airport and shouting, “Have a safe flight!” In fact, we should want you to drive safely, because the chances of something going wrong are much higher in an automobile than in a car.
If someone wishes you a “safe flight” and returns to the highway, this is a classic example of “heuristic availability” at work. When it comes to evaluating outcomes and risks, we often dictate the events that are easiest to remember, our understanding of probability.
In this article, we take a close look at what heuristics are about availability, give examples of how it works inside and outside the sport, and give you actionable advice on how to combat it.
What is heuristic availability, exactly?
Before we come heuristically into availability itself, it is important to define what a ‘heuristic’ is first.
A heuristic is just another word for a “rule of thumb”
A heuristic is just another word for a “rule of thumb”. When approaching a problem, we often replace a heuristic with a more sophisticated analysis of a problem. This is not a perfect approach to solve a problem, but it is practical, simple and comfortable.
Availability Heuristically, our natural tendency is to assign a significant amount of importance to events that are either very easy to remember or have left a strong impression on us. We use these easy-to-remember events as a more accurate tool to evaluate risks and outcomes than you actually are.
We attach so much weight to memorable events because it is natural and simple, not necessarily because it is the best way to accurately judge a result or a problem.
This can lead us to misunderstand the likelihood of events. We often tend to believe that if we can remember something, it must be extremely relevant, or at least more critical in judging a problem than events we have forgotten.
Differences Intermediate Availability and Risk Availability
The most common type of heuristic availability is the outcome availability bias. This is when we use the available heuristics to judge the outcome of an event.
Let’s say we watched sports. We would use the last games we remember to determine what the game’s sweepstakes will be. If the last three NFL games we saw were decided on a two-point conversion, we might think that a two-point conversion is likely to be the crucial game in the next game we see. However, two-point conversions that win a game are actually extremely unlikely, statistically speaking.
If we were to invest, we would use a similar process. In assessing the chances of success of our investment, we would probably use the information that is easiest to remember when analyzing our probability of winning. For example, if we see news that indicates that war is imminent anywhere in the world, we might think that the gold price will rise. However, the prediction of the gold price is a much more complicated calculation, and it will not necessarily be influenced by these recent news.
The second type of heuristic availability is the risk availability. In our intro, we talked about how plane crashes in the media usually have a higher profile than car accidents. That’s because you’re much more registered and therefore easier for us to remember. As such, we often regard flying as more dangerous than driving when the opposite is true.