The Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is the use of information that can be recalled easier.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the accessibility heuristic.  For example, are there more words in the English language that begin with the letter r or have the letter r in the third position in the word?   Most people think that there are more words beginning with the letter r, but in truth r is in the third position in many more words than in the first position.  In attempting to answer this question one tries to recall words.  It is much easier to recall words by their first letter than by their third letter.  Consequently this information is much more available.   Now the accessibility heuristic does have its value.  If you are time constrained, it may provide the only hope of an answer.  However, if there is time, one needs to look it up.

            Here is another example.  Are there more deaths due to homicide than to diabetes-related diseases.  Many would answer homicide to this question.  Homicides are in the news and on television and the movies, whereas diabetes wreaks havoc in relative obscurity. 

            Sticking to the homicide theme, which is higher, the number of homicides or the number of suicides?  In the United States in 2005, there were 5.6 homicides per 100,000 people, but there were 11 suicides per 100,000.  So the suicide rate is almost twice the homicide rate, yet most would probably opt for the homicide rate.  Again, homicides get much more attention than do suicides.  The murder mystery is a genre in literature.  Have you heard of a suicide mystery.   Usually suicide mysteries are whether they are true suicides or whether someone was murdered.

Continuing in this vein, in 2006 were there more deaths attributed to

assault (murder) than to Parkinson’s disease?

More deaths attributed to assault than to influenza and pneumonia?

More deaths attributed to assault than to Alzheimer’s Disease?

More deaths attributed to assault than to chronic lower respiratory diseases?

The answers to all four questions is “no.” But murders make the news. The are highly available. Many more people die every day from other causes, but they are less likely to make the news. Hence, they are less available.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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