The "Availability" Heuristic


The "Availability" Heuristic  


As a person listens to a subject being discussed, the mind will unconsciously (Daniel Kahneman's, Thinking Fast and Slow, System 1) do a quick Google-like search and sort through the mind's entire deck of life experiences to make associations with that subject.  


"Availability" is the term given to the mental shortcut of that brings some cards to the top of the deck before others.


Salient, dramatic and traumatic events take a special prominence in the search.


Due to media attention, we have a tendency to overestimate the frequency of occurrence of Hollywood divorces or political sex scandals.


We have a tendency (based on fear/survival instinct) to overestimate safety risks such as terrorist attacks.

True or false?

  1. Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined.
  2. Tornadoes kill twice as many people as asthma.
  3. Botulism kills five times as many people than lightning.


2. FALSE. Asthma kills 20 times more people than tornadoes.

3. FALSE. Lightning kills 52 times more people than botulism.


The Mind Fits the Narrative to the Available Information  


Watch where your mind goes with the following narrative:


Every work night for 20 years, Jim has taken the same route home. On Friday, February 24, Jim decided to try out a new route home and check out a few neighborhoods that he and his wife might retire into. On that night, Jim had a collision with another car in an uncontrolled intersection.


You may notice the natural tendency of the System 1 mind to link the provided information of  'new route,' 'check out neighborhoods,' and 'retire' with the 'collision.'  Your mind may have almost felt compelled to use the information provided as if the narrator had a purpose in giving you that information. 


You may have subsequently noticed a secondary process in which the System 2 mind starts to consider other alternatives, but it takes 'work' to do so.


Implications for Voir Dire


Skillful interviewing during voir dire is critical to revealing the helpful or harmful biases that jurors bring to the courtroom based on the "availability" of salient personal experiences or media publicity related to the subject matter of your lawsuit.  


Every word that the judge provides potential jurors as part of a brief litigation overview may be a trigger for some form of adverse availability bias.