You have 3 seconds to think of your favorite memory with your best friend. Go.
Have one? Now, is this memory really your favorite one? Or is it simply the memory that was easiest to recall? If your first response wasn’t actually your favorite, then you’re likely exhibiting the availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that explains why it’s easier for our minds to quickly recall prevalent thoughts. If you spent a few minutes thinking about all of the great memories that you share with your friend, you might realize that your favorite memory is actually not the first one that came to mind. However, many people will say that their favorite memory is the one that they can remember the most easily… Because that’s what our brains prefer.
In my series on mental biases and heuristics, I will be exploring the ways in which we can all become better decision makers by being more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. The term “mental biases and heuristics” describes the preconceived notions that affect how we think and process information. We know that the most knowledgeable, informed, and aware people make the best decisions, and as a result, are able to produce the best business results – that’s why being aware of mental biases and heuristics matters.
I will be starting the Making Better Decisions series with “availability heuristic,” which you experienced just moments ago. It affects how we think and make decisions about… Basically everything. The availability heuristic usually applies to numbers and quantities, but I’ll argue that it really does apply to every facet of our lives, as you saw in the example when thinking of a memory with your best friend. Being cognizant of this heuristic helps us to be better decision-makers because we can use it as a tool for understanding when our thinking is logical and when our thoughts are filled with unintentional assumptions.
The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. This usually occurs when we estimate the number of things. For example, do you think there are there more words that begin with the letter “m” or that have “m” as their third letter? If you weren’t already in a mental state of suspicion since you are reading a post about mental traps, you’d probably respond by saying that there are more words that begin with the letter “m.” Why? Because it’s a lot easier to think of words that start with the letter “m,” and it takes more brain power to think of words that have “m” as the third letter. Therefore, because your brain immediately comes up with a longer list of words starting with “m” (I thought of: mother, miracle, make, marvel) than words that have “m” as the third letter (I thought of: remember), you think that there are objectively more words in the spoken language that start with “m.”
Now, that there are more words beginning with “m” than having it as the third letter may or may not be true – I don’t actually know the answer, I just wanted to try a new letter to test the heuristic on myself. This example is, however, often done with the letter “r,” for which there’s factual evidence that there are significantly more words with “r” as the third letter than as the first – the opposite of what we would expect. The point is, we make a judgment on something simply based on how easily an example comes to mind. That is why I believe this heuristic can be applied to every facet of life.
Here’s an example: if my friend Jordan hears his co-worker talking about a fun weekend trip she took to Miami, maybe he starts looking at plane tickets and realizes that the prices are very reasonable, so he ends up booking a trip to Miami with his fiancé for the following month. The night before they’re leaving, his fiancé’s sister – who’s afraid of flying – asks him what he thinks the odds are of their plane crashing. Jordan doesn’t think it’s very likely – one in a million, maybe – but he remembers seeing an article about a plane crash in the newspaper last week, so he lowers his estimate – maybe it’s one in five hundred thousand. Really, the odds of a plane crash are estimated to be between one in six million and one in eleven million, but Jordan has never seen something on TV or in the newspaper discussing the millions of safe flights that happen every day. My point is that everything we say, think, do, or feel is heavily based on the most recent or most available experiences that our mind can recall.
The availability heuristic doesn’t just have to be about numbers and quantities; it’s about how what’s in our minds at this moment affects the choices and decisions that we make. It shows how everything is interconnected. It is absolutely mind blowing to me how much of our lives is dependent upon the most recent thing we heard or remember.
Taking the availability heuristic into consideration when making business decisions can be a complete game changer. When you are going over last year’s numbers in a Q4 meeting and your boss asks you what the projected marketing spend will be for the coming year, rather than quickly blurting out last years’ number, take a moment to think about how the campaigns performed, the current market, and potential influencers for the coming year. Keeping in mind the availability heuristic – and your tendency to rely on information that’s readily available – you may realize that maybe last years’ number isn’t the best choice for the coming year. Being more cognizant of this bias can make a real and measurable impact on your business decisions.
Furthermore, this mental trap doesn’t discriminate against people or against industry. In the BTS Innovation Practice we have worked across industries, with banks, insurance companies, and even creative media companies, to uncover the mental traps, like the availability heuristic, that most afflict their individual organizations. As different as these clients may seem, they have all faced the same challenges of dealing with mental biases and heuristics because they are omnipresent in our lives. The availability heuristic is particularly saturated in our everyday lives, so being aware of it is crucial, especially when we’re making important business or leadership decisions.