The Availability Heuristic | Example & Definition
The availability heuristic occurs when we judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily we can recall similar events. If we can vividly remember instances of that event, we deem it to be more common than it actually is.
Due to the availability heuristic, our perception of reality can be distorted. This can lead to poor decision-making (especially when assessing risks) and to a few types of research bias, including recall bias.
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What is a heuristic in psychology?
In psychology, a heuristic is a mental shortcut or rule of thumb that people use to make decisions.
In general, mental shortcuts are helpful because they allow us to reach a conclusion or make a choice quickly. If we had to factor in every piece of information when making everyday choices, we would spend far too much time trying to find the best possible answer.
While heuristics are helpful, they can also lead to biased decision-making and sub-optimal choices.
What is the availability heuristic?
The availability heuristic (or availability bias) is a type of cognitive bias that helps us make fast, but sometimes incorrect, assessments. It involves relying on information that comes to mind quickly or is most available to us.
Under the availability heuristic, information that is more easily recalled is assumed to reflect more frequent or more probable events. Conversely, information that is more difficult to recall is assumed to reflect less frequent or less probable events. As a result, the availability heuristic influences our perception of reality.
Availability heuristic vs representativeness heuristic
The availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic are both mental shortcuts we rely on when assessing the probability or frequency of something happening. Although they are often confused, they are different types of heuristics.
The availability heuristic makes us estimate the likelihood of an event based on our ability to recall similar events, while the representativeness heuristic makes us estimate the probability of something based on the degree to which it resembles (or is representative of) a known situation. However, this can lead us to a wrong conclusion, because the fact that something is more representative does not actually make it more likely.
Why does the availability heuristic occur?
The availability heuristic occurs because some events are easier to recall than others. The easier something is to recall, the more likely it is to influence your opinions and decisions, because availability is mistaken for frequency. There are a number of reasons why something is more readily available to us:
- Media coverage: dramatic events are more likely to feature in the news. For example, plane crashes, natural disasters, or gruesome crimes are all headline-grabbers. Because of this, we are often exposed to vivid images or descriptions of events that leave a lasting impression on us. As a result, we overestimate their frequency or probability.
- Recency: events that have taken place recently are inherently easier to remember, especially if they were dramatic, emotionally charged, or impactful. Due to this, they are more likely to influence our decision-making.
- The relative unavailability of information: some high frequency but less-publicised causes of death (e.g., diabetes) lead people to believe that those kinds of events are less probable than they really are.
Availability heuristic examples
The availability heuristic leads us to rely on current or easily recalled information instead of processing all relevant information when faced with a choice.
The availability heuristic can also lead to biased judgements when examples of one event are inherently more difficult to generate than examples of another.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about the availability heuristic
- What is an availability heuristic example in everyday life?
The availability heuristic can influence our perception of risk in everyday life. One common example occurs when we are considering buying insurance. The sharp increase in purchases of flood insurance in the aftermath of flood events illustrates this phenomenon.
Witnessing such events, knowing someone who was personally affected, or extensive media coverage can make us more aware of floods (or make floods more ‘available’ to us). This can change our risk perception, even though statistically there may not be a change in the probabilities of future flooding.
- What is an example of heuristic in psychology?
Heuristics are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that help people reduce the time and effort required to make a decision. An example of a heuristic in psychology is the availability heuristic (or availability bias). It involves relying on information that comes to mind quickly, (i.e., information that is available to us).
- What is the difference between availability bias vs confirmation bias?
Although both are common types of cognitive bias, they refer to different ways of processing information.
- The availability bias (or availability heuristic) refers to the tendency people have to rely on information that is easier to recall when faced with a decision.
- Confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceived ideas.
In other words, the availability heuristic gives preference to information that is easy to recall, while confirmation bias gives preference to information that aligns with our existing beliefs. Even though they are different, they both cause us to focus on only a subset of information.
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