Availability bias is having a way of thinking based on the ability to think of an example, availability bias is also known as the availability heuristic and the phrase was first coined in 1973 by Tversky and Kahneman.
I see availability bias effect people everyday, and unfortunately availability bias also predisposes to a way of thinking that compounds people inside their problems by distorting how they see the world.
The reason why availability bias is so common is that;
our brains like to measure how likely it is that something will happen by how easy it is for an example to come to mind,
e.g. we see the media hype about lottery winners and we can therefore think it’s more likely that we are going to win if we by a lottery ticket, another example of availability bias is that if we see a report of a plane crash on the evening news we can then believe that flying is more dangerous than it really is.
I think however that the issue with availability bias is not about lottery tickets or the fear of flying, the real issue is about the way it effects people by narrowing their resources and making them unable to see the way out of their problems, in some cases it causes passivity and takes away control to the extent that people just don’t do what they need to do.
Availability Bias happens in medical consultations, and my issue is that it can sometimes get in the way of empowering patients to take action or to implement the changes they need to make in their lives to help them with their condition.
“My grandfather smoked like a chimney and he lived until he was 100”.
Availability bias stops people from looking for solutions and what’s worse sometimes the belief that they can recover from a serious illness, I see some people who hear the word cancer remember the death of a family member and they are then convinced that they going to die too because that’s the only example they can think of.
If you think whole hearted that something’s going to go wrong or for that matter go right you probably push fate in that direction, in medicine the placebo effect can even give you up to a 17% effect in some studies, and that’s a big effect when we are looking at quality of life.
If we can attach a memory, an experience or an event to something, because of availability bias we tend to believe it must true, with mental illness we know it can be predisposed genetically, yet how much of this is actually down to genetics in each case, this I’m really not too sure, however I do see people again and again conditioned to accept their fate due to availability bias as their thinking becomes stuck with a ‘if it happened to them, its going to happen to me’ mentality.
In this article and especially with presentations we can give examples, to add credibility, and thus by giving an example of how we can use availability bias to help get something across.
In therapy I like to use real examples and talk of people doing really well by doing a particular solution, I have also got into the habit of asking patients what’s worked before for them so that they can base their thinking on a real example of them getting better, in the least it focuses the mind on a solution.
So my final thought are beware of the availability bias, flying is pretty safe and it’s really unlikely you are going to win the lottery.
You can survive things that may have been a death sentence a few generations ago, and for all of those old blokes that smoke like chimneys and live to 100 there’s millions more that don’t.