Psyche: Availability heuristic

It’s impressive, how we are completely oblivious to most operations of our brain. We are made to learn about the functions of the physical aspect of the body. Close to everybody knows that there’s a small intestine and a large intestine. Which has as much practical significance as the turd within them. But, ask about the flaws and potholes in which your brain is bedecked with, nobody has a clue. It’s not the fault of the people. But, the nature of the flaw. The flaws are just so perfect that nobody is aware of the flaw.

This one is called availability heuristic. It’s a super broad term, but the functions of its lower terms are sort of the same.


This struck me as a common thing that people are prone to. These are the situations in which people tend to assess the frequency or probability of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be retrieved.

For example, when asked about the number of people with diabetes in a nation. People tend to calculate the count for a nation, with the number of people that they know with diabetes. Which, superfluously might seem like a good way to calculate larger values. But, the truth lies that, diabetes is genetic and as more people in your family have diabetes, The more you would think the nation has diabetes. Which is bad because, due to your genetic lineage, you’ve undercalculated the health of a nation.

This is a more benign way of testing the more complex scenarios in which this might affect our judgements.

We’ll take another example. Remember the last time you watched a scary movie and was afraid to go in the dark? well, what happens is that the brain evaluates the risk of going into the dark, due to the high retrievable rate of the vivid movie image residues, as high risk of death by ghosts. Let the forgetting curve works its magic. within a week, you’re more confident to stride in the dark, simply because the retrievability rate has dropped low since the images are now hard to retrieve.

If your brain could evaluate the probable risk of death by a ghost as high, rather than your years of evolutionary and personal knowledge. Think of the ways in which this might affect our judgements.

The general trend seems to be that, people consider the world to be going in the wrong hands into an obvious dystopian future. This is an assumption that is primitively wrong, as I’ll illustrate later. The other is that the newspapers and channels tend to highlight the more eye-catching ones. What would you rather read, “A terrorist vandalism in Jammu and Kashmir.” or “world health average has improved 2%”? The decision seems obvious. The more you read, the more retrievable it becomes, the more dystopian the world seems.

This is a pernicious loop, that we irrevocably are stuck in.

Basically, newspapers blind us to the obvious truth through all those murky, discursive descriptions. This seems to be the antithesis, of what the 655 Billion dollar news industry seems to aggrandize. This is a topic that requires a separate post all on itself. But the fact is that the more you read, more ignorant and more tunnel visioned you become of the world.

Coming back to the retrievability of instances.

Is it possible then, to falsely change the opinion of the masses by making the data more available in their brains?

It is quite doable.

This is the basis on which the whole of the advertising industry works. The more you get your product in front of the people’s eyes. The more confident, they become of the product. That is why companies like, ‘Nike’, ‘Beats’, ‘Apple’ or ‘Oppo’ that spend aggressively on advertising are still making a killing. Simply because they’re made to be more retrievable in our minds. More retrievable brand name means that we trust them more than, a new outlandish one.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Only the most retrievable can be trusted. Anything that is new should be detested and should be kept off as much as possible. And we are very much the same, morphologically or otherwise from those days to this. This septicism about all things new is the exact reason why we are still alive, and the Dodo is not. Dodos are very inquisitive creatures, That followed no scepticism and came very close to the invasive sailors, instead of cowering for shelter. This inquisitive behaviour continued, even after their own kin were being butchered. Its an elegant case of the lack of retrievability of instances, leading to the extinction of a whole species.

As far as survival goes, this has helped us survive and stand on top of the food chain. But, this is a feature that we come preinstalled with. One, that can easily be reductive and cancerous to the growth of our perspectives on the world. And one that influences every single decision that we make. Now, the general opinion about national health, might not be so life-altering. But, consider a scenario where you’re going to start a business. A single availability heuristic in the way you judge the demand of the product that you are shipping can make, or break your entrepreneurial success.

This is something akin to walking on thin ice, and utmost carefulness is demanded.

Talking about the not so reductive future of the world.

Life expectancy is at an all-time high of about 73%. More than ever in the 200,000-year history of humans.

life expectancy

Which means, death rate has dropped to an all-time low of about 8 per every thousand people.deathrate

Terrorism has increased, obviously. Considering the extreme increase in population. implying that, there are more people to get hurt and more people with radical ideas.


But, just wait before you start waving your, “The end is near” Flags and imagining every dystopian versions of the world in ruins. While the sudden spike might seem concerning and rid you of all  hope for a better world, consider this.

Last year, the British Royal Statistical Society (RSS) awarded its inaugural International Statistic of 2017 to ‘the number 69’ because this is the, “annual number of Americans killed by lawnmowers, on average – compared to two Americans killed annually, on average, by immigrant Jihadist terrorists.”

Though the number 34,572 might look pretty big, Its a mere ephemeral speck of dust in the perspectives of the rest of the things that are a threat to the world.

Diarrhea is a more imminent threat that needs more attention and concern, It kills roughly about 50 times more people than terrorism. Which is quite massive, and something that the media seems oblivious about.

I’m not implying that, Terrorism is something to be brushed off as insignificant. It’s very much a problem that should be given importance and requires looking into. But, just that Heart diseases kills 5,400 people for a single person killed by terrorism.

so, heart disease and diarrhea are a bigger and horrifying existential threat to our existence than terrorism.

The next time your mind evaluates the masked jihad with a machine gun as world’s biggest threat. Just remember the biases due to the retrievability of instances that you are prone to, and the brighter future the world is moving towards.

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