The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can lead people to rely on readily available information or emotionally charged and inherently interesting examples when making decisions or judgments. Essentially, individuals tend to overestimate the probability of events that are easy to recall or that they’ve personally experienced, while underestimating the likelihood of less memorable or less frequent events.
In other words, the ease of retrieval of a misleading cue may make people rely on evidence not because it is dependable but because it is memorable or striking and thus psychologically available to them. They may do so even if the evidence is not logically acceptable or does not logically support their decision.
Doctors often depend on recalling their past dramatic cases and mistakenly apply them to the current situation. People may overestimate the crime rate in their community based on news coverage, even though crime rates may be relatively low. People may dismiss the reality of climate change if they’ve recently experienced a cold winter or heard of a cold snap in a particular region, even though global warming is a long-term trend. Individuals are more likely to purchase insurance after experiencing a natural disaster than before it occurs. In each of these scenarios, the vivid and emotional evidence feels more persuasive rather than it being the most accurate or reliable information.
The availability heuristic can also shape people’s perceptions of air travel safety and lead them to believe that flying is more dangerous than it really is. Airplane accidents are often sensationalized and highly publicized by the media, making them more memorable and more prominent in people’s minds. This can cause individuals to perceive the risk of flying much higher than it actually is, leading them to avoid air travel even though it is statistically one of the safest forms of transportation. In reality, many less vivid and less memorable (i.e., psychologically unavailable) things are much more dangerous than air travel, such as falling down stairs, drowning, choking, and accidental poisoning.
Avoid falling prey to the availability heuristic and making serious misjudgments about the risks associated with different situations. Acknowledge that personal experiences and recent events may not accurately reflect the overall reality of the situation.