Let’s face it, we can’t trust our minds to give us totally reliable information much of the time. Instead, we are susceptible to a variety of short-comings that affect our ability to reason, problem-solve, make good decisions, and accurately interpret ourselves, others, and the environment around us. Often, these errors in thinking occur outside of our conscious awareness. When we lack insight into these mental biases and vulnerabilities, we set the stage for poor judgment, errors in logic, self-destructive behaviors, and other problematic consequences associated with basing thoughts and actions on flawed data.
The good news? We’re not powerless against these influences! Learning about your tendencies and pitfalls is essential for beginning to overcome them; you have to understand what you’re looking for in order to notice when it’s happening and do something about it. Over the next 4 weeks, we will cover 5 common pitfalls that insidiously impact our thought-processes and decision-making. This week, we’re starting off with the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that has its benefits in situations that warrant quick judgments but can also lead to faulty assessments about probability and risk that can lead to poor decision-making.


Pitfall 1: Availability Heuristic

Are there more farmers or librarians in the United States? Your gut answer depends on your experiences. The more quickly and easily examples come to mind, the more likely we tend to think that choice, event, or outcome will be and vice versa. In this case, people who live in urban areas are more likely to respond with librarians; those in less urban areas (the majority of the US) nearly always choose farmers (they’re right!).
Heuristic is a term that refers to rules of thumb that are used for quick problem solving and decision making. One example is the availability heuristic, which is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that spring into memory when we begin evaluating a decision, concept, or strategy. It can be helpful in some situations but can lead us astray in others. If you answered farmers, it served you well a minute ago; if you thought librarians, you witnessed an availability heuristic fail!
When it’s based on accurate information, the availability heuristic can be a powerful tool in our thinking toolbox. It can help us make quick judgments, without much mental effort, which can be important in situations where you have limited resources or time to arrive at a conclusion. For example, quick decisions about which freeway to take at rush hour or whether to drink that expired milk in the fridge may be accurately informed by information available in memory.
The problem is, our memories are often unreliable and we’re frequently unaware of the fact that our information is skewed. Certain events stand out in our memories over others in ways that do not necessarily represent reality. For example, exposure to excessive and vivid media coverage can lead people to believe that certain events occur much more often than they really do. Are plane crashes, shark attacks, or child abductions as common as you think? Probably not! That’s what makes them newsworthy!
The implications of the availability heuristic are often underappreciated. In fact, it is one common reason that we misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events and it underlies many unfounded fears that keep people from fully experiencing the world around them. Everything from our decision to purchase a home alarm system, scuba dive, travel to foreign countries, drink alcohol, drive a sports car, buy a lotto ticket, or wear sunscreen is informed by our personal risk assessments that arise from our experiences and observations.
What can you do? Pay attention to what you pay attention to! Where is your information coming from and how does it affect you? Most importantly, remember that just because you have a lot of examples of something in mind doesn’t mean it actually happens often or poses a significant risk. Seek additional sources of information as needed to balance your knowledge and help ensure effective decision-making!
Check in next week where we’ll discuss our next critical thinking pitfall, the confirmation bias!