How Availability Bias Works

Availability bias is a cognitive bias, also known as the availability heuristic, that considers the mental ease with which one can recall information or events. Concepts are more easily retrievable in our memories if the exposure is recent (fresh in our minds), frequent (it stays relevant in our mind because the information is used often), or vivid (the experience is emotionally charged or made a strong impact on you). When information is more easily retrievable in our minds, that is the information that we, as humans, tend to rely on when evaluating a concept or making a decision.

Due to this cognitive bias, we mistakenly believe that whatever is easiest to recall should provide the best answer to our problem or question. Since our minds are wired to work this way, recent events and information we have encountered can play an important role in our decision-making. Our decision-making is inconsistent due to this effect because we may choose different options at different times, depending on what information we can most easily retrieve in our minds. The benefit to this mental “shortcut” is that it allows us to arrive at decisions quickly in our day-to-day lives.

There are obvious challenges presented by availability bias. If the information we have is not accurate or misrepresentative of reality, then we can easily make the wrong decision. We tend to misjudge risks in life, associating more dramatic events that have impacted us mentally as more risky (like a plane crash) while underestimating the risk of other more common activities (such as driving a car). This is influenced by the media, as many news stories are sensational or dramatic events. News channels do not report on the mundane daily activities that are, in fact, much more representative of reality. Social media also impacts the availability bias in people. They tend to prefer information that is easy to obtain rather than researching to validate what they are hearing, seeing, or reading.

Example of Availability Bias

Availability bias appears in our lives daily, although most people are not aware. Marketing companies can play on these innate cognitive biases to sell more products for companies or increase customer ratings and satisfaction. Even those familiar with availability bias and what it is can fall into its trap if they are not paying attention or do not have the time to dedicate to researching alternative information to confirm or cast doubt upon what they have easily recalled.

A great example of availability bias is when lottery companies celebrate recent winners. They do this through media coverage, pictures of winners with huge smiles and giant cardboard checks in their hands, and even on a smaller scale with posters in the windows of shops where their tickets are sold that say “$1,000 winner sold here!” These experiences that we have lead us to overestimate our chances of winning, and in turn, increase the amount of money we spend on tickets while trying to do so.

Another example of availability bias occurs when insurance companies sell more policies following natural disasters. For example, suppose there is a hurricane. In that case, insurance policy sales will spike afterwards because people who did not have insurance before may now overestimate the likelihood that the same thing could happen to them. To protect themselves from the catastrophe and financial fallout, they seek an insurance policy to cover them. However, the odds of those people experiencing a similar disaster have not changed, only the ease with which they can recall what that disaster looks like and awareness of how devastating it could be for them.