Jumping to conclusions: The availability heuristic

Date: 08/12/2021 Written by: Rosie 5 minutes to read.
How does access to information influence our decision-making?

Heuristics, or "mental shortcuts," help us to make decisions every day, without us even realising it. But the availability of information can impact these thought processes, influencing our behaviour in unexpected ways. Here's how...

Every single day, our brains have to process an overwhelming amount of information, so we are grateful for anything that makes its job easier and helps us to make quicker decisions. The term ‘heuristics’ is just a snazzy name for these “mental shortcuts” or “rules of thumb” that we rely on to help us make decisions in our everyday life. In this blog, we talk more about the availability heuristic, and how it influences our behaviour in ways you might not expect…

 

1. Relying on what springs to mind

The availability heuristic describes our tendency to place more value on information that springs to mind quickly, such as significant events we can vividly recall. This could be something we have memorised, something that had a big impact on us, or simply a recent event that is “fresher” in our minds than situations that occurred a long time ago.

 

2. Where we get tripped up

The problem with the availability heuristic is that it can cause us to incorrectly predict the likelihood of a particular event occurring or wrongly assess its severity, which could lead to us avoiding engaging in it altogether. For example, if you’re scrolling through your news feed and see increased news coverage of plane crashes and you also happen to have recently watched a documentary about a plane crash, you’re more likely to avoid getting on an aeroplane. The increased media coverage is fresh in your mind (you may even have been exposed to unwillingly), whereas taking the time to research the probability of plane crashes occurring is far more mentally-taxing and time consuming. This could lead you to conclude that plane crashes occur frequently, thus getting on a plane is not worth the risk, when, in reality, the odds of this happening are far lower than you’ve been led to believe.

 

3. How to avoid it

Being aware of the mental shortcuts we make is the first step towards making well-informed decisions. To target the availability heuristic, specifically, there are a number of ways in which we can avoid placing more value on readily available information:

 

So, what’s the moral of the story?

Don’t jump to conclusions! Sometimes it’s worth taking the scenic route to a well-informed decision.

 

If you're thinking of using behavioural science in your next campaign or project, get in touch to find out how our Research and Insights team can help you.

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