Which should I be more afraid of ?  Sharks or Horses ?

Which kills more people each year: car accidents, homicide or suicide combined….or cancer ?

Which job is more dangerous—being a police officer or a logger? 

When answering this kind of questions, we assume by default that more examples we can retrieve from our memory, the more common a thing is.

Unfortunately we retrieve from memory some things much more easily than others.  We would recall quickly things that, in our experience and perception, are:

1. frequent

2. extreme

3. negative

4. recent

5. vivid

The media would publish the most dramatic events because they are more vivid and exciting for the public. Murders, car accidents, shark attacks are very sensational and appealing to media reporters. Because of this, these types of deaths are reported more often in the media and became more easily available in our memory. Instead, things that are far more common in life –  but aren’t as dramatic – like a cancer patient dying at home are under-reported by media.

Thus, an excessive media consumption fuels the availability bias, distorting your view of the world: much of what is found on TV news is negative, extreme, and low probability and it is not a complete a fair representation of the reality. In fact, many psychologists found that heavy consumption of news would raise self-reported measures of anxious and sad mood, and subsequently leading to catastrophism, worries and concerns.

Heavy Facebook use leads to the same effect. People tend to represent themselves positively on Facebook. When you scroll through your newsfeed, you only see others’ positive representations of themselves. It’s a skewed sample; you’ll rarely see neutral or negative representations of your friends’ lives. (You’re bound to see more pictures of people windsurfing, eating an incredible meal, or having fun with their kinds than sitting on their couch on a Friday night bored out of their minds.)

This gives you the impression that your friends are happier and have better lives than you do.

But offline, real-world interactions with your friends contain no such selection bias, giving you a correct framework.

The availability fallacy manifests itself also in public policy. USA Government spend 25 times more money fighting terrorism than fighting cancer, even though cancer kill 2000 times as many people. Both policy makers and the public who elect them remember dramatic episodes of terrorism much more readily than boring statistics about cancer. And this is the way our priorities are set.

In a now-famous experiment, the Nobel Prizes Amos Tverski and Daniel Kahneman asked  a group of people “Think about how many words start with the letter k compared to the number of words with k as the third letter. Does the letter k occur more often at the beginning of a word or as the third letter?

They found the following results:

  • 70% of the people answered K in first position
  • 30% of the people answered K in the third position

Actually K appears more frequently in the third position in a word.

Why do most people get it wrong?

Because words where k is at the beginning, such as knife, keep, or key, come to mind easily when you’re thinking of the letter k. They are readily available in your memory.

But you’re less likely to think about words like take,  ankle, ink, or acknowledge. These words are less availability in memory.

Availability influences how you perceives frequency. Your perceived frequency is based on how easily instances of words that start with k come to mind compared to words where k is in the third position. Because words where k is the first letter come to mind more easily than words where k is the third letter, and because you are more likely to believe things that come to mind easily are true, you get it wrong.

After you see a movie about a nuclear disaster, you might become convinced that a nuclear war or accident is highly likely.

After seeing a car overturned on the side of the road, you might believe that your own likelihood of getting in an accident is very high.

After seeing news stories about high-profile child abductions, you begin to believe that such tragedies are quite common. You refuse to let your child play outside by herself and never let her leave your sight.

Similarly, people remember vivid events like plane crashes and lottery wins, leading some of us to overestimate the likelihood that our plane will crash or, more optimistically — but equally erroneously — that we will win the lottery. In these cases, the availability bias leads some people to avoid flying at all costs and leads others to rely on a big lottery win as a retirement plan.

An example of the power of availability heuristics is what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. After seeing images of planes crashing into buildings, and hearing about chaos at U.S. airports, people opted to drive instead. As a result, an additional 2,170 people who would have otherwise flown lost their lives in car accidents. Some of these people were forced to drive because U.S. airspace was closed for three days after the attacks. Others decided to avoid the hassle of extra security at the airports. But most decided to drive out of fear of dying in another attack—even though the possibility was remote.


How to minimize the impact of  availability fallacy?

The availability bias replaces frequency data with data that come to mind more easily.

Thus, the solution is to count. You have to rely on cold numbers, not on the news –  your intuition – your memories.

Which job is more dangerous—being a police officer or a logger? While high profile police shootings might lead to you think that cops have the most dangerous job, reading raw and boring statistics (counting) will show you that loggers are more likely to die on the job than cops.

Sharks or Horses, as asked the inception of this article?……Horses would kill far more people than sharks! (in a 10 year period, in USA, 10 people are killed by sharks versus 215 killed by horses).

What you might not realize is that other dangers lurk at the beach! And statistics could give you a fair and complete representation of the real dangers on a beach.  For example, coconuts.

Do you know that you are twice as likely to be killed by a coconut at the beach than a shark? Coconuts are not only more dangerous than sharks. They also strike at random: you can see a shark coming, but it’s impossible to predict when a coconut might fall. You can also provoke a shark and expect a response. But if you provoke a coconut, it is, statistically no more or less likely to respond with rage.

Because shark attacks are over-reported by media, and because it is scarier to imagine being killed by a shark than a coconut, death-by-shark comes to mind more easily than death-by-coconut, so it’s more likely to affect your behavior.