The Availability Heuristic

 I recently bumped into a fascinating term with which I was quite familiar by practice, but not by name. It is called the Availability Heuristic. The link will go to a wiki page with a more precise definition and some examples of how the phenomenon applies in various categories of life. 

In short, the availability heuristic is a mental phenomenon in which a person relies upon the recall of  information that can be brought easily to mind to form the basis for opinions and decisions. (The word heuristic is a fancy term for ”problem-solving” or ”decision-making”.)

If something can be easily recalled, it is available to the mind to serve for ”facts”, and there is a tendency (bias) to give it more weight and credence. 

If you spend a week watching Shark Week on television and then are invited to swim in the ocean, your exposure to all of the gruesome shark attacks during the past week will be readily available when you decide whether or not to venture into the water. 

Nah, there’s nothing to see here.

The availability heuristic predicts that you will feel a higher probability of a shark encounter than had you not watched all those shows. The actual statistical probability of being attacked does not change a fraction based upon your television habits or your ability to recall the frightening scenes. Meanwhile, you remain blissfully ignorant of the much higher statistical probability of being involved in a serious car accident on the way to the beach.

Immersion in any pool of information makes it seem more true and more predominant than it may actually be. 

This bias is exactly what gives rise to social media ”Echo Chambers” regarding political, social, and cultural views. 

Exposure shapes opinion. Opinion shapes worldview. Be careful out there.

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