What is availability bias?

Data Literacy Uncertainty and Misinformation

Tl;dr: Availability bias, also called availability heuristic, is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when we rely disproportionately on the most readily available information to make decisions or judgments rather than the most representative or accurate data. Reflection and review of all available data can help us mitigate this particular bias.

Sometimes do you find yourself talking about something and then you notice it everywhere? For example, you and your buddy are talking about goat yoga and then it seems like everywhere you look is a reference to goat yoga? Maybe you make a snap judgment that goat yoga is the hottest new thing that everyone is doing, and you rush out to invest in the next big goat yoga studio. It turned out just to be a small group of eccentric people who really like having goats climb on them while they do yoga.

Let’s take another example: You watched Shark Week and now are terrified of getting bitten by a shark, even though it is incredibly rare.

Both are examples of availability bias. Availability bias, also called the availability heuristic, is when we make quick judgments based on the most readily available information but not necessarily the most representative information. Information may be more available in our minds because we have a vivid memory, recent experience, or have been seeing it in on the news or social media.

Availability bias is a type of cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are errors in thinking that influence our decisions and judgments. Availability bias can lead us to believe information that is untrue or make decisions without all the facts. In healthcare, for example, availability bias can lead doctors to mistakenly diagnose a patient with the same disease they recently saw in another patient. This is even more likely if that memory is vivid or intense, like when the other patient had a bad outcome. Those types of memories come to mind more easily than information read in a guideline or textbook, making them stand out and skewing thought processes.

Reflection has been demonstrated to reduce the impact of availability bias. We tend to be susceptible to bias when we are rushed, emotional, or overwhelmed with information. Taking a pause to reflect on how a decision is made can help us identify what information we are using to make choices and what information we might be missing or ignoring. Once we identify gaps in information, we can gather more data and use this totality of information to shape our judgments and decisions.

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay vigilant for biases!

Those Nerdy Girls


Catalogue of Bias

Effects of availability bias and reflect on internal medicine residents

The Decision Lab

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