An easy way to find out if we are affected by – ‘Availability Bias/Heuristic’

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on

If someone were to ask you of the top 10 causes of death in India, what will be your answer?  Will you put Corona in your top 10?  Will deaths because of terrorism figure in it or will you include road injuries in your list.

If these questions were to be asked today, I am sure a lot of us would put Covid-19 as a major cause of deaths.  However, when we look at the data the numbers, which look so obvious because of the excess media coverage, do not add up.  Almost 0.15 million people die in road accidents every year in India compared to just around 5000 because of corona since March 2020.

Even suicides hover around that mark.  Heart diseases, stroke, diarrhea, tuberculosis and neonatal pre-term birth are amongst the top causes of death, which are far more in numbers than by covid 19.  Even deaths related to terrorism do not figure in the top 10 of India or the world, however if we had watched a movie related to terrorism like Zero Dark Thirty recently or heard about a terrorist attack, the odds of us putting terrorism in the top 10 will become even higher.

So, why do we make such errors.  The answer is because of Availability bias or Availability heuristic.

Availability heuristic refers to when people make snap judgements about the possibility of an event based on ease and vividness of recall.  Now, it’s relatively easy for us to recall people dying because of corona or terrorist attacks because of the extensive media coverage and incessant online discussions.

Terrorist attacks with their vividness and compelling imagery, etch them forever in our mind.  Who can forget the image of the planes hitting the twin towers?  It is so captivating that it rests with us for a very long time, subtly affecting our judgments without us even realizing it.

Now let us say, you have recently been on a vacation to Goa.  It was an amazing holiday and you enjoyed the beautiful beaches and watched tranquil sunsets while sipping your favorite drink lying comfortably on a hammock.

After you return from that trip, you get into a discussion with your colleagues who are arguing over the best place to go for a holiday.  Now even though, you may not have visited 1000 other places where the other people might have been to, your preference for Goa will overshadow everything else.

Since, you have been to that place and the visit made you aware of almost every minute detail on where to go and what to do while on a trip there, you will probably disregard other places suggested by your colleagues with equal or even better beauty because of your most recent experience.

This easily recallable information bias us when we try to reason with someone or when we offer our insights and suggestions.

The best thing to do in such cases is to be self-aware.  An acceptance that we may be falling for a bias will alert your mind to think in a different way.  Although, this would involve pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone, repeated actions will ensure it turns into a habit and stays with us for a much longer time.


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