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Availability Bias - Examples and How to Overcome

4 minute read | Dec 19, 2022
product, finance, management

Availability bias occurs when we overestimate the frequency or likelihood of an event when it is easier to recall. This can lead to bad decision making especially when assessing risks or making investments. availability-bias

For example product managers may assess the demand for a particular feature by recalling past interviews they participated in. People managers may weigh internal promotions based on how often their schedules match with each candidate under a hybrid work environment.

Sections

  1. Why does availability bias occur?
  2. How can availability bias be overcome?
  3. Examples of availability bias in startups

1. Why does availability bias occur?

Tversky and Kahneman argued that people tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease of which they are retrieved from memory.

Our memory can be swayed by factors including:

  • Limited capacity: average number of items we store in our short term memory is 7
  • Salient events: vivid and emotional events that leave a lasting impact in particular negative experiences
  • Recency: frequency of media coverage or social discussion
  • Imagery: excellent at encoding images over words

Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated the availability heuristic in a series of studies in 1973 including one measuring “Fame, Frequency and Recall”.

Participants listened to a list of 39 names being read and were then asked to recall whether the list contained more men or women. The list either had fewer names of famous women and more names of less famous men (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor vs William Fulbright) or a list with fewer names of famous men and a list with more names of less famous women (e.g. Richard Nixon vs Lana Turner).

Over 80% of the participants incorrectly judged the list with famous names to be more frequent in terms of gender. Tversky and Kahneman argued that people’s frequency judgements are biassed by the ease of which names could be recalled.

2. How can availability bias be overcome?

Here are three ways you can overcome the availability heuristic:

  • Acknowledge: as with most biases you will always have an initial “gut reaction”. Take the time to acknowledge that you lack the full data and are making an assessment based on what you can remember
  • Frame the problem: before making an assessment ask what problem you are really trying to solve. This will assist with asking the right question to get more data and assessing whether any decision solves the right problem
  • Look for different examples: seek out and compare counter examples of what is easier to remember (e.g. older vs recent instances, positive vs negative experiences, multiple instances of any memorable imagery)

3. Examples of availability bias

Here are three examples of how product, HR and marketing teams may be impacted by availability bias and how they can overcome it.

Role Example Counter
Product Manager Assume a certain feature is more important to users because they participated in past interviews and recall the user and their emotion Encourage video recordings of user interviews to ensure teams are not biassed by images over words
HR Manager People managers may overweight candidates for internal promotion by how often they match with their schedules under a hybrid work environment Set a higher relative weight for promotion criteria towards competency and deliverables vs team culture
Marketing Manager Increasing ad spend on outdoor medium as they view more non-competitor startups spending on more outdoor on their path to work Evaluate any new ad spend formats against a small experimentation budget which must compete against other proposals

References


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