Availability Bias: Don’t Let Your Surroundings Affect Your Decisions

Imagine that you normally take the train to work. One day, you see that your usual train take got derailed off the tracks! Would you be more inclined to take the car to work for the next couple of weeks?

According to the Psychology studies presented in Thinking, Fast and Slow, most people would choose the car. Yet in reality, the crash was just one event and does not affect the overall probability of a train crash. According to the data, you would be far more likely to die from driving a car to work than from taking the train.

The human tendency to overestimate the probability of an event based on how recently we’ve been exposed to it is known as availability bias. The more we’re exposed to an event (on the news for example), the easier we remember it. And the easier we can remember it, the higher we estimate the probability of it occurring. What ends up happening is that we overestimate the probability of unlikely events occurring, leading us to miscalculate important decisions.

Examples of Availability Bias

Availability bias is most prominent when we are exposed to unlikely yet scary events. We think about the scary events more because they stick in our heads; we just can’t stop thinking about them! Here are a few more examples of common availability bias.

Random causes of death

Similar to the train crash, there are other freak accident events that pop up on the news from time to time and end up making people overly scared. Everything from plane crashes, dog attacks, and getting shot by someone on the street. These are all incredibly rare events, but because it gets shown on the news we tend to be hyper-aware of them.

When the movie Jaws came out in the 1970s, attendance at ocean beaches in the United States took a sharp decline! People were literally scared out of their shorts to go to the beach. Availability bias was playing tricks on them, even though the probability of getting attacked by a shark had not changed after the movie.

Experiences of family and friends

Availability bias can also be experienced from what we are exposed to from family and friends. We spend a lot of time with family and friends, so much of what they say ends up having an effect on us.

For example, let’s say your parents are advising you to go to Law school: “you should go into Law. We know a great guy at the church who’s in law and he makes a lot of money.”

Your parents are associating that one guy’s career in Law with the entire field of Law, and thus recommend it to you because they see it as a successful career. But not everyone does well in Law. Average salaries are not that high, it’s mainly the top 20% that are really doing well. Plus, you might want to do something else that your strengths are more suited to.

Close exposure

We’d like to think that we have chosen our hobbies, careers, and preferences by our own free will. But availability bias has an effect on those too!

Someone who has a parent who is a doctor is more likely to become a doctor. If you hang out with friends who like drinking for fun then you will be more likely to take that up as a hobby. If you know a lot of people that love to travel you’ll be more likely to want to travel too.

Overcoming availability bias and using it to your advantage

Like any of the biases we’ve covered before, once you understand it, you can overcome it and in this case even use it to your advantage!

Stick to your guns… and data

Unless there is something that actually changed the probability of the options, stick to your original plan. If you’ve always been driving and you hear about several car crashes on the news for example, then there’s no rational reason to stop driving just yet. Those news stories may have looked bad, but they don’t really change the statistics very much.

The only reason to alter your decision would be if something has fundamentally changed about the situation that can actually affect the options. For example, if there was a recall from the manufacturer because of a faulty part, that totally changes how good the option of taking the train vs the car is. Or it could be a change of your own accord like you feel like switching to taking the train now because it’s cheaper or you don’t like driving anymore.

In any case, whenever making a decision, try to consider rational thought and raw numbers as much as possible. If an event is one-off and hasn’t occurred enough to really affect probability, then it’s usually safe to just ignore it.

Expose yourself to as much good as possible

So we know that the events and information around us affect how we think of them. We can use this fact to take advantage of the availability bias. Surround yourself with good and positive things. They will have a good and positive effect on your mindset and the decisions you make in life.

  • If you hang out with smokers you’ll be more likely to be a smoker. Instead, hang out with people who love exercise and are passionate about fitness. They’ll drive you to adapt the same lifestyle
  • If you follow the news and other negative accounts on social media, then you might subconsciously adopt a negative mindset about the world. But you can also expose yourself to more positive media. There are plenty of social media accounts that post motivational quotes, science facts, and book recommendations. Those are all really positive and exposing yourself to them will have a positive impact on your life.
  • If you only ever go to work to do your 9-to-5 and then come back home, your career growth will be limited. You’re only ever exposed to that 9-to-5 so you never learn beyond that. But if you go to networking events, read books and blogs, and talk to more people, then you may learn something that leads to massive growth.

In summary: expose yourself to things that are highly positive for yourself. That exposure will change your mindset for the better and help you grow.

This article is part of a mini-series on cognitive biases. Stay tuned for more! Check out the others so far here:

Substitution Bias: How to Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Details
Confirmation Bias: How to Be More Open to New Ideas
Framing Bias: How to Make Better Decisions
Anchoring Bias: How to Avoid Getting Ripped off on Salary
Loss Aversion: How to Take Calculated Risks
Hindsight Bias: How to Be Smart About Reviewing Your Past Decisions

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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