Availability Heuristic

In order to decrease processing time and save energy, our brains use shortcuts.  Just as we determine the best way to travel between point A and B with the least amount of traffic and aggravation, our brains try to eliminate needless processing time.  By design, most shortcuts draw on a finite set of information or experiences to make a decision quickly.  It compares the current situation to past events and outcomes, validates the similarities, and takes action.  A common shortcut is the availability heuristic, which draws on specific examples in our memory to permit us to quickly categorize, predict, or react to an event by determining its frequency or probability.  The availability heuristic grants us a powerful tool, but result in trouble as well.

Most modern jobs require the estimation of probabilities on a regular basis.  Think about your typical day.  How often do you wonder about the likelihood of an event or outcome? Some simple examples include:

  • How likely is this idea to work?
  • What do you think our chances of success are with the product?
  • Will he or she reach their numbers this month?
  • Can we make this deadline and produce the quality that we need?
  • Do you really think this employee has what it takes to make it at the next level?

During this internal process, it is typically not possible to calculate an exact number or percentage.  Consider if someone in your office said there was a 27.22 percent chance of success.  What would you think?  Most of us would have serious doubts about the validity of the estimate when it is this precise.  Conversely, when someone states “there is a strong probability” of this occurring, we tend to listen.

This mental mechanism backfires sometimes.  The root of its failure as a tool resides in the source of its strength: our memories.  By nature, we remember the most dramatic things the easiest.  In other words, when we recall things, the bigger the event, consequence, or occurrence the more vivid the memory will be and the vivid memories form that basis of our comparisons.

So, when you estimate the chance of something occurring:

  • ask yourself what events you are drawing on and are they norms or fringes;
  • discuss the experiences of others;
  • supplement your probabilistic feeling with logic;
  • leave yourself open to other explanations.
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