If My Memory Serves Me Correctly…(Availability Bias)

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Ever wonder how reliable your memory is? We explore this question in this episode of our show and learn about a common thinking problem called availability bias. You can listen to this episode here on our website or on your favourite podcast player.

Ken: Hi there, this is ‘How to Choose’, the show that helps you make better decisions and improve your judgment. Thanks for joining us. I’m Ken.

Tessa: And I’m Tessa. Welcome to season three. In this, our third season of How to Choose, we’re exploring the topic of thinking problems or biases that impede our decision making.

Ken: In this season, we’re focusing on eight common thinking flaws that undermine our ability to judge well and make good decisions. We’ll tell you some ways to identify if you’re succumbing to these errors and how you can reduce the impact of these biases.

Tessa: What’s our topic today, Ken?

Ken: Well, today we’re looking at availability bias. Availability bias is the tendency to put too much confidence in stories and memories that we can quickly access or remember. We’re all vulnerable to this – as we are with all of the biases that we’re learning about. It’s an example of the quick ‘System One’ thinking that we’ve been talking about and I thought it might be interesting to test this one out with a question. So I asked a number of listeners what animal causes the most human deaths in Australia? And here is what they said:

Isha: Maybe snakes.

Peter: I would probably say mosquitoes.

Dana: Microbes. Is that an animal? Could we say that?

Ken: Well, that’s interesting. Look, I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of microbes. But it’s an organism. Yeah, let’s put it there.

Brian: I would say it’s either one of your spiders or one of your snakes.

Erin: So I think if I were looking globally, I would imagine it would be the mosquito. But I think in Australia, as much as the heart wants to believe it’s a bull shark, based on the latest news, I think it’s more likely to be something like a kangaroo. I was told an anecdote, and I don’t know how true it is or not, that for every car in a smash repairer in Canberra due to a car accident, there’s two in there due to a kangaroo strike. So I suspect kangaroos are probably a cause of quite a few problems.

Becca: Kangaroos

Duncan: That’s a great question. I would assume it would be something like a snake or a spider because of how they can (for people who have maybe heart complaints) trigger a cardiac arrest. Or it could be something more marine, like a box jellyfish. Or it could be livestock? Maybe there’s a huge number of farmers who are getting mowed down by their cattle!

Nick: Probably poisonous snakes.

Lucy: I saw a video that said it was horses. I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not, but I heard it’s horses from the sheer number of people that I guess ride them on cattle stations or just for fun and get knocked off horses. So you know what? I’m going to roll with horses sheerly based off an interview that I saw of someone on the internet who supposedly knows that information.

Ken: Now, before we start to analyse these responses, it’s really important to note that this small sample of answers in no way constitutes a valid scientific experiment. And that applies to all of our listeners’ answers segments this season. But it is interesting nevertheless. And we’ve used these as a simple illustration of the thinking processes that have been observed in a number of experiments. But having said that, the responses to a question like this reveal a few interesting things about us.

The first one is that we are sometimes confident in our knowledge, without having good reason to be confident. Why would we necessarily know the answer to this question? Now, in defence of our listeners who did answer the question, they did feel obliged because I was recording them. So I’m not suggesting that they were overconfident, but it does make me think that often I probably am. I’m probably quick to ‘have a crack’, as we say in Australia, even without necessarily having a whole lot of knowledge to base that on.

The second point is that if we haven’t immediately turned to Google for the answer to the question, then what we’ve done is probably trawled our memory to see what we can recall. If our memory doesn’t provide us with a table of data, and I would say usually it doesn’t, then we’re often thinking of prominent incidents or stories of human death at the hands or paws of animals.

Tessa: Yeah. Really good points, Ken. I mean, how often do we actually say, ‘I don’t know’, or ‘Give me more information’ or ‘Can I clarify?’ We’re just primed to want to give a response, aren’t we? And I think another interesting thing here is there’s another thinking flaw known as substitution. And substitution is when we answer a question that isn’t quite the question we’ve been asked, but without actually being aware of it. So why do we do this? It’s because the original question is difficult or complex, and by changing the scope of the question, it becomes easier to answer. And in this case, the question, ‘What animal causes the most human deaths in Australia?’ could be changed without realising it to ‘What Australian animal kills the most people?’ with a focus on native Australian animals. Or ‘What is the most deadly animal in Australia?’ focusing on an animal’s potential to kill rather than the number of actual deaths. Or it could be ‘Attacks by which animals cause the most human deaths in Australia?’, focusing on animal attacks rather than on accidental attacks.

Ken: Yeah, that’s a fascinating tendency, isn’t it? So let’s get back to the question itself. So it was: ‘What animal causes the most human deaths in Australia?’ Now, at least two of our listeners offered some reflection on why they gave their answer. Dana had been thinking about mosquitoes because of a book that she’d been reading on pandemics. Lucy recalled horses because she had watched a video that identified horses as the animal that killed the most people in Australia, and probably because that was surprising and interesting it stuck in her memory. Others offered some rational explanations for their answers.

Well, now I know you’re wondering, what was the actual answer? Well, first I’ll state that the data that I’ve drawn on is dated. It covers the ten year period from 2000 to 2011. But during that time, there were 254 confirmed and reported deaths by animals. It’s quite possible that mosquitoes weren’t considered when they were talking about animals. I’m not sure, but when we look at the data, it is horses, 77. So well done, Lucy! Then cows, 33, and then dogs, 27 that were at the top.

Tessa: Our listeners can fact check us Ken, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, other than Japanese encephalitis, that mosquitoes really haven’t killed very many people in the last hundred years, because I don’t think we have a lot of mosquito borne disease. However, very different if it’s a global question – on this, they’d be much higher.

Ken: Yeah, good point. Now, if you were imagining – because you had substituted a different question to the one that was actually asked – if you were imagining attacks by dangerous native Australian animals, then you wouldn’t be picturing cows and horses, unless perhaps you’ve been listening to the song Cows with Guns. But in this case, the cows and horses were causing deaths in accidents on farms or on roads where humans and animals are in regular contact. Kangaroos are also high on the list, but that’s got nothing to do with attacks against humans. It again relates to car accidents. As Erin pointed out in her answer, there’s a lot of kangaroo-related accidents. But let’s take a moment to unpack the thinking problems that underpin availability bias. Do you want to go first Tess?

Tessa: Yeah, for sure. I mean, we should start with that fairly obvious point that our memories are not a repository of all the information that we need to make accurate judgments and good decisions. Even if our memories were accurate, we’d still likely only have a very small portion of the data that we need. But because we make quick judgments and decisions, we don’t always pause for long enough to realise just how little we know when we’re answering these kind of questions.

Ken: Yes, and building on that point, our memories are fallible. We misremember many things. And just on that topic, here’s a couple of interesting things about our memory. And if you actually find this interesting, I can recommend a really good book, ‘Remember’ by Lisa Genova. Well, the first point is that there’s no memory center in our brain. We don’t actually have specific memory neurons. Memory is actually stored in the pattern of neural activity that was activated when the event was first experienced. For example, if you’re recalling a meal that you ate yesterday, your brain must activate the same neurons that were involved when you first experienced the meal. You remember the flavours by activating the olfactory cortex of your brain, and you might remember the colours by activating your visual cortex. And it’s revealed when you do an MRI of the brain. It’s interesting because different parts of the brain will light up, reflecting the fact of different areas of your brain being active in memory. Another point is that remembering isn’t a perfectly accurate replaying of an event in your mind. It’s been described as more like a scavenger hunt.

Tessa: That’s right. As Genova writes, memory is quite economical. In a nutshell, our brains have evolved to remember what is meaningful. They forget what isn’t. The truth is, much of our lives are habitual, routine, and inconsequential. Most of the time, forgetting isn’t actually a problem to solve. While admittedly frustrating, forgetting is just a normal part of being human. Yeah, I think that was a really interesting point there, that we remember what we pay attention to, and this really varies depending on our personality. So unless we’re actually deliberately kind of paying attention, memories are just not formed. So, Ken, if someone is kind of pessimistic, they’re going to notice more negative things, and therefore they’re going to form memories of those negative experiences. And these are called our episodic memories, while forming far fewer memories of the positive experiences. And reflecting back to episode two where we talked about confirmation bias, we’re most likely to remember situations that confirm what we believe. We sit up, we pay attention, and memories are formed. And so availability bias reinforces confirmation bias.

Ken: Yeah, that’s worth just pausing and thinking about. It’s fascinating Tess. And another thing to realise, too, is that we’re much better at remembering stories than facts, and we also latch on to dramatic stories. So when we empathise with the characters in a story, those emotions are linked to a chemical response in our brain, which may well make that story more memorable than some dry facts that we’ve read in a textbook.

Tessa: So what can we do to minimise the impact of availability bias?

Ken: Ken well, it’s easy to say this, but the first thing is don’t rely too heavily on your memory. Understand how your memory works and its limitations. Supplement your memory and test it with other sources of data that you can trust. And for the same reason, don’t fully trust the memory of other people, no matter how much you respect their intelligence and their wisdom. Now, it’s not necessarily irrational to form a judgment or make a decision based on the information that’s readily available to us. But unless it is a critically urgent decision, we should pause and reflect what data we’re actually relying on. Are we making a decision based on patchy or unreliable data? Could some additional research help us form a more reliable judgment?

Tessa: And let’s talk about applying this. What about at home? If we’re able to accept that our memories are limited and flawed, then perhaps we can be a little bit less dogmatic during arguments with, say, our housemates or partners. When we’re upset and angry, it’s easy to remember all the times that we were extremely helpful around the house while our housemates slacked off and skipped on their chores. But those times were memorable as they annoyed us and elicited a strong emotional response that lodged in our memory. And on the flip side, understand that while you did not notice or establish a memory of the times you were lazing about in front of the TV while your housemate washed the dishes or vacuumed the floor. But they did.

Ken: Important note here, too, that, flawed as our memories are, we should also be alert to the possibility of gaslighting. Some people are manipulative and deceptive and they will refuse to accept our recollection of events. And when we sense that there might be a pattern of pathological manipulation by a partner or so-called friend, then that’s a serious issue and it’s fundamentally different from an honest difference of remembering.

Well, let’s think though, at work, if you’re in a management position at work, it’s likely that you’re going to need to provide some sort of performance appraisal for your staff. In the Australian Public Service, this is a mandatory annual review, and from experience it can be quite difficult to remember many specific examples of great performance or less than great performance to discuss with your staff members. What tends to happen is that you have a general impression or vibe and then you try to find examples that support your opinion.

Tessa: That’s a classic confirmation bias, isn’t it? Or also known as a positive test strategy.

Ken: Yeah, exactly. So what would be more accurate and effective would be to schedule a regular time in your calendar when you reflect and make notes in a notebook or a Word document on the specific examples of positive or negative performance. And look, here’s just an aside, a critical management point don’t store these up and only mention them at the end of the twelve months that is not helpful for people to grow and develop. So you need to have regular chats with your staff about what they’re doing well and what they can improve on. But back to the topic at hand, the point is that a week-by-week record provides a much more detailed and accurate record of performance than a once-per-year head scratching session. It also helps prevent the emotions that you’re feeling at a particular moment having too much impact on your evaluation, because it’s spread out over a longer period of time. Well, there we go. That’s the end of the episode Tess. What’s your key takeaway from this episode?

Tessa: There’s lots Ken. I learned a lot in this one. To me it was a point about substitution, because sometimes when we get a difficult question, we probably answer something that seemed a bit easier with more readily available information, rather than trying to dissect the question that you’ve been given, which might have been much more complicated. What was yours Ken?

Ken: Well, look, I learned something from our listeners’ answers, because there were a few people who didn’t just answer the question, but they actually reflected on why they had remembered those specific examples. And I thought, that’s a great example. So don’t just trawl your memory for examples, but stop and ask yourself, ‘Oh, why did that example pop into my mind?’ Well, thank you so much for joining us for another episode of season three of How To Choose. Please make sure you jump in and listen to episodes five where we will be talking about hindsight bias.

Tessa: Bye for now.

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  • […] different justifications for the reasoning for giving that answer. There was definitely a bit of availability bias on display here, and some people seemed like they were starting to consider the base rate, […]


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