Availability Bias: How to Avoid Irrational Fear and Poor Decisions

If you’re like most people, you consume the morning news with a sense of anxiety and fear.

Each day, we read about shootings, war, and the spread of nuclear weapons.

It’s no wonder most of us feel like the world is getting increasingly worse.

But the truth is that we are actually living in the least violent time in history.

It’s (Actually) Getting Better!

Research by psychologist Steven Pinker shows that more people than ever before are living in peace.

The numbers of homicides, armed conflicts, and nuclear weapons are all declining.

Most people have a hard time accepting these statistics. Some even refuse to believe them.

If this is the most peaceful time in history, then why are there so many reports of murders? Why does everyone keep talking about wars? And why do we hear about nuclear weapons all the time?

It’s All Readily Available

We are living in the most reported time in history.

Information about horrifying stories from all over the world is more easily accessible than ever before.

So, while the likelihoods of dangerous events are going down, the chance that you’ll hear about them are going up.

And this is where the availability bias comes into play.

When an event springs easily to mind, our brain will exaggerate the frequency and magnitude of it.

We constantly overestimate the impact of stuff we remember and underestimate the things we don’t hear about.

What’s Recalled Seems Important

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman:

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.

The availability bias makes us bad at assessing risks and estimating probabilities.

And that, in turn, affects our feelings, decisions, and outcomes. For example:

  • If we hear about a plane crash, we might develop a fear of flying that severely limits the places we can travel.
  • If we’re told about a shark attack, we might avoid the ocean every time we’re at the beach.
  • If someone in our neighborhood wins the lottery, we might waste a lot of money on tickets.

The chances of experiencing a plane crash, getting attacked by a shark, or winning the grand prize in a lottery are incredibly small.

But the brain doesn’t care about that. Instead, it bases its immediate judgments on the vividness of the stories we’re told about these events.

How to Counteract The Availability Bias

To make well-informed decisions, you need to keep this tendency in mind.

Whenever you’re presented with news and stories, try to recall instances of the event that isn’t so memorable.

For example, ask yourself how many people you know who have:

  • Not died in a plane crash?
  • Never been attacked by a shark?
  • Failed to win the lottery jackpot?

Or, do a quick Google search and look up the real world probabilities for these events.

That way, you can keep the availability bias in check, minimize unnecessary stress, and avoid irrational decisions.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.

Improve Your Life in 5 Minutes a Week

Get my free One Percent Better newsletter.

It’s short, actionable, and loved by 7,000+ subscribers.

Enter your email address below now and join us:

I’ll never share your information, and you can unsubscribe easily anytime.