Availability Heuristic

Today, we’re going to talk about the Availability Heuristic, our third cognitive bias out of what I hope will be a series of 50 videos.

Availability Heuristic cognitive bias can sometimes get in our way. Because, what happens when this occurs, is when we think of something, we tend to give more weight, or just rely on the first thing that pops in our head. So here’s a little example. Think of a whale. Right now, just think of a whale. What do you think of? I’ll bet most of you thought of a killer whale, maybe the one at Sea World, or the one that we tend to see in nature videos. I actually thought of a humpback whale because those are ones that I would go and see when we would go whale-watching as a kid here in Sunny Southern California. So, what we each think of is different. But that may not be the best thing to think about; it may not be the best option.

If you’re asked at work, “Hey, who should we put on this project?” You might immediately think of someone who was recently on a project with you or did a good job for you. But that person might not actually be the best option. So, if we are aware of this, we can think a little bit deeper.

Now, let me give you a little story about this. I took two of my kids to the Safari Animal Park in La Jolla, California. It’s a really cool place to go where most of the animals are actually free to roam around in these areas as opposed to being in these cages. (Sort of a less depressing zoo.) Anyways, we got to stay overnight, which was an incredible experience for me and my kids. And at night, around the campfire, they brought out this really cool animal called a Jerboa. They have big floppy ears and look like a rabbit. They also have these big hind legs that kind of looked like a kangaroo.

The Safari workers asked all the parents and all the kids, “What do you think this is?” And every answer was either rabbit or kangaroo. There were also a few funny jokes about maybe it was a combination of the two. This was the availability heuristic at play: we immediately took some small detail we had, thought of the first thing that came to mind, and we were convinced that this is what it was. Turns out, it was neither.

This animal was a rodent that was closer to a rat than anything else. It had just evolved in a way where its ears look like a rabbit and its legs look like a kangaroo. It’s not a Marsupial. It’s not related to them at all. But we were so convinced by one simple fact and that right away our brains thought, shortcut, it must be that, right? And so, we were totally wrong.

Think about how many times in your work, maybe your first response, answer, or thought could be wrong—or at least not the best option for you. Moving forward, when someone asks you something or you have to think of something, slow down, give yourself a little bit of time to think about a better response, or at least come to the conclusion that maybe your brain wasn’t right the first time.