Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sharks and the Availability Bias

Do deer or sharks kill more people a year? If you look into stories covered in the media or reports on the internet you would find all kinds of horror stories and tales of sharks attacks and fatalities. Certainly most people have a very rational and natural fear of this large tooth filled animal. Steven Spielberg film Jaws went a long way to a general fear of being in shark infested waters for swimmers and paddlers. It is fair to say that if you like me were asked this question you would probably answer that of course sharks are more dangerous and attack more people a year than humble docile deer. The truth is a little more surprising.

You would actually be wrong, in fact deer kill many more people every year in car accidents than sharks attacking swimmers. The poor shark has become the victim of our own imaginations. Although I would still prefer to stroke a deer than a shark, the truth tell us that the shark is persecuted by our beliefs and this can of course have negative consequences if making an important uninformed decision. If we are not properly informed the decision could well be the wrong one and have a consequence for the shark that is unjustified. So what might be happening here. Well it seems this is part of what is know in psychology as the Availability Bias.

Availability Bias is a cognitive bias that generally causes us to over estimate a probable outcome based on how recently or well a memory is stored in our brains. So in the instance of the shark comparison because they have such a strong mental image for us, heightened by the news stories, internet tales and films, we have a stronger belief that this animal is more likely to attack us and base our belief on how easily we recall the shark in our minds. This incorrect information is the result of the availability bias. This the same condition that makes people fear flying when in fact there are far more fatal car accidents. The recall of the information is more likely to be based on how often and when we last heard of a similar event.

This bias can also affect how you approach a problem or business decision. You might jump to conclusion based on opinion and subjective information. The information you use may also be subject to this bias. Care must be taken when making assumptions about consumers and users of products. Without the real data or study of the target people it is too easy to make sweeping statements based on incorrect information. You might for example make a decision based on assumptions about the users preferences that are general opinion rather than fact. Do girls always like pink rather than blue? Do Apple consumers really hate Microsoft? Yes the media paints these pictures but that doesn't make them absolutely true, I am sure that some people buy Apple iPhones, but use Windows PC's at work, or there are girls out there that actually hate pink. The point being made here is that the availability bias can creep into product and service design as well as business decision very easily if the choice is made based on opinion rather than facts, or testing. We shouldn't rely on our most recent memory of this in the news or the last time we saw this product in use or use as the standard opinion of a small group of people. It is important to not allow this bias to cause us to make the wrong decision, as it can be quite incorrect.

Of course this says a lot about how we rely on the news, opinions, ratings and stories of others to inform our decisions. This is why we should be aware and careful the next time we jump to a conclusion without a little more research into the truth.

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