The Availability Heuristic

While the representative heuristic is used to analyze people’s behavior, the availability heuristic is more frequently used to determine whether or not an event is likely to happen based on available information about similar events.

The availability heuristic is intimately associated with informational accessibility or the degree at which a person can easily recall a situation or event from his own memory. The big difference between the availability heuristic and informational accessibility is that there is a subjective participation when one uses the availability heuristic.

For example, the concept of cookies is easily accessible for most people but that does not mean that a person would be constantly recalling his subjective experiences about cookies. The only time that the information becomes part of s heuristic would be when a person has to recall something related to cookies when he has to make a decision related to cookies.

The availability heuristic in situations where we feel anxious about doing something because we have read or heard about something similar. For example, if there are a string of muggings in your area, you would have a natural fear to go out alone at night because of the stories that you hear from your neighbors.

Because of the high accessibility of related information (i.e. stories about the muggings), you are led to believe that you should not go out at night alone because you might be mugged, too.

False Consensus Effect

The false consensus effect is a specific bias that usually results from the use of the availability heuristic. The false consensus effect points to the tendency of some people to exaggerate the validity of their own opinion by thinking that the majority of those around them will have the same opinion.

There is no way to measure whether or not the majority of the population will agree with a person and therefore, the false consensus effect will never generate anything that is truly objective/neutral or statistics-based. People just think that other agree with them. For example, if you ask someone if he likes a particular restaurant, his train of thought would be something like:

  1. “Yes, I like that restaurant it serves really good food at really great prices.”
  2. “I think other people like this restaurant, too”
  3. “9 out of 10, people around this area will choose this restaurant over other restaurants.”

As you can see, a person who has a false consensus effect will defend his positive or negative statement about something by citing false consensus, regardless of what other people actually think or feel about something.

The false consensus effect is quite common among people because long standing beliefs are easily pulled from the conscious memory. Strongly held beliefs are tied integrally to our own behaviors and tendencies and therefore, our judgment of other people’s appearance, behavior, credibility, etc., are partially influenced by our own behavioral biases.

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