Bias number 12 is known as the availability heuristic, also known as the availability bias. This is a cognitive bias that governs how people evaluate information by drawing on the immediate recall of examples to make assessments of situations, topics or decisions.
The belief that underlies this bias is one that, if the memory immediately comes to mind, it must be more important than memories that are more difficult to recall. Therefore, people are more likely to make judgements and form opinions based on recent events or information, rather than looking at the entire picture or the historical significance of the situation.
It’s a mental shortcut that enables us to make quick decisions. The problem is, quick decisions are not always the best decisions, and can in fact create barriers to performance.
In the fast pace of 21st century business where speed and agility are encouraged, this bias is leading the charge. It also goes some way to explaining why so many businesses and projects fail. Time seems to be a luxury that people trade for making decisions, taking action and getting things done.
How does this work in practice? Think about your own approach to making decisions in business. How much emphasis do you place on information that immediately springs to mind over taking the time to research all sides of a situation that needs your strategic direction?
Let’s look at a recent issue that businesses face - the impact of Covid-19 on the nation's mental health.
At a time when life is filled with uncertainty for many due to the threat of a deadly virus, naturally employee’s physical health is of the utmost concern and priority. At the same time, there are those who show concern for the impact the lockdown has had on the mental health of colleagues.
In the midst of the crisis, the Royal College of Psychiatrists cited an increase in cases of severe mental health episodes in people who had not shown previous propensity for mental ill health. However, they didn’t provide actual numbers on the rise of mental health crises, but rather provided a few anecdotal stories that implied a growth in new mental ill health cases.
This sort of news story, while attempting to highlight a potential problem, sets off the availability heuristic in people who are sensitive to the mental health narrative. Shortly thereafter, erroneous claims of a 200 per cent rise in suicide rates during lockdown spread across social media.
How do people move from anecdotal information to grossly inaccurate statistical data? Well, in truth it's anyone's guess, but I would propose that the availability bias created a misinterpretation of facts.
Lord knows, we love a good drama, don't we?
The availability cascade bias discussion showed us how inaccurate stories spread like wildfire across media platforms. The availability heuristic shows us how it starts — through short cuts in thinking.
It’s natural to expect that extraordinary situations like Covid-19 lockdown generate a rise in the number of mental health issues. When people are faced with death, the survival instinct kicks in. To be honest, it should. This is exactly what it’s designed to do - keep us alive when our lives are truly in danger.
The problem comes when the survival mode is switched on and kept on for extended periods of time. Too much adrenaline and cortisol in the body burns out the nervous system. Even a highly resilient person will struggle after a few months of being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance.
Hyper-vigilance itself is a key defining characteristic of anxiety. Anxiety results from thoughts of worry for the future. Articles that suggest mental ill health is on the rise with no concrete facts to back up the assertions add fuel to the simmering embers of anxiety.
This ignites a spark that leads to a blaze of erroneous claims, like the false claim of a 200 per cent rise in suicide rates during the pandemic.
At a time when survival concerns and the accompanying anxiety are already high, has anyone thought that perhaps, just perhaps, stoking the flames is a bad idea, especially when you haven’t got concrete facts to back up the claim?
What’s most surprising and disappointing is that the original concern was raised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I know this is well-meaning. However, I also assert that psychiatrists, of all people, should understand the impact of increasing anxiety by acting as a catalyst for the availability bias to take hold.
It puts people at risk of further breakdowns in mental health. How? Well, perfectly healthy people start asking themselves, “Should I be feeling anxious?” That in itself creates anxiety!
And the answer to that question is, “No.” You feel how you feel, and if a piece of speculative information causes anxiety in you, consider that you’re giving the speculative assertions too much weight.
At times like these, fact is always preferable to speculation, and anecdotal evidence is a view. It’s not the entirety of the view.
If you have concerns, take some time to find real facts and base your decisions on them. If facts are not forthcoming, take a deep breath in and let the worry go as you breathe out. It serves no beneficial purpose to fret over a future that hasn't happened yet.
Remembering to breathe consciously helps you return to a state of relaxation. That enables you to settle back into your own rhythm of stillness. This is where true brilliance arises.