In the weeks and months after the United Airlines’David Dao incident and the ensuing customer service debacle, news of all kinds of disruptive airline incidents, coldblooded managers, and inconsiderate airline staff showed up everywhere.
The United incident raised everyone’s awareness of airline incidents. Expectedly, the media started drawing attention to all sorts of airline incidents—fights on airplanes, confusion and airports, seats taken from small children, insects in inflight meals, snakes on the plane—affecting every airline, large and small. However, such unpleasant incidents rarely happen, with thousands of flights every day experiencing nothing of the sort.
Parenthetically, the underlying problem that led to the David Dao incident wasn’t unique to United. The incident could have happened at other airlines. All airlines had similar policies regarding involuntary-denied boarding and prioritizing crew repositioning. Every other airline, I’m sure, felt lucky the David Dao incident didn’t happen on their airline.
In the aftermath of the incident, many people vowed to boycott United. Little by little, that negative consumer sentiment faded away while the backlash—and media coverage—over the incident diminished.
Availability bias occurs when we make decisions based on easy or incomplete ideas.
The David Dao incident’s media coverage is an archetypal case of the Availability Bias (or Availability Heuristic) in force. Humans are inclined to disproportionately assess how likely something will happen by how easy it is to summon up comparable–and recent–examples. Moreover, examples that carry a fierce emotional weight tend to come to mind quickly.
The availability heuristic warps our perception of real risks. Therefore, if we’re assessing whether something is likely to happen and a similar event has occurred recently, we’re much more liable to expect the future possibility to occur.
What we remember is shaped by many things, including our beliefs, emotions, and things like intensity and frequency of exposure, particularly in mass media. When rare events occur, as was the case with the David Dao incident, they become evident. Suppose you’re in a car accident involving a Chevy, you are likely to rate the odds of getting into another car accident in a Chevy much higher than base rates would suggest.
If you are aware of the availability bias and begin to look for it, you will be surprised how often it shows up in all kinds of situations. As with many other biases, we can’t remove this natural tendency. Still, we can let our rational minds account for this bias in making better decisions by being aware of the availability bias.
Idea for Impact: Don’t be disproportionately swayed by what you remember. Don’t underestimate or overestimate a risk or choosing to focus on the wrong risks. Don’t overreact to the recent facts.