The Availability Heuristic Is Ruining The Country

When all the government and the media talk about is immigration, we fall victim to the availability bias.

Rapists and drugs and thugs. MS-13. Concrete walls… or fences… or… steel slats.

These are the most important issues in politics today. Or so the availability heuristic says.

The Availability Heuristic

Humans have a finite memory capacity. As a result, we use heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to better process information and make sense of the world.

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on the availability or ease of recall of examples of a given topic. Examples we more readily recall we view as more important.

Behavioral scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are widely credited with pioneering the research around human “heuristics and biases”. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes,

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory — and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media

Ask anyone what the most important topics in politics are today, and they will likely say immigration.

However, according to the Pew Research Center immigration was only the sixth most important voting issue in the 2016 election.

Gallup has tracked the country’s opinion on the importance of select issues on a monthly basis. Just four months ago, in September 2018, only 12% of the country believed immigration was the most important issue facing our country. Now, in January 2019, 21% view it as the most important issue.

The amount of Americans who view immigration as the most important issue facing our country has increased 75% in the past four months.

There is a simple explanation — the amount the government and the media talk about immigration, and the wall, allows for greater retrievability of immigration as an issue facing our country. When it’s more easily recalled, it’s deemed more important.

We also more easily recall vivid narratives. Trump isn’t corroborating his arguments for a wall with facts and figures, he’s doing it with vivid stories of brutal rapes and gang violence.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In addition to the availability heuristic impacting our view on the importance of issues, it also impacts our view on the probability of events occurring.

9/11 left many Americans fearful of flying. In its aftermath, air-passenger miles fell 20% that October, compared to the year prior. With the vivid imagery of the Twin Towers on fire or collapsing etched into their memories, many viewed the probability of another terrorist attack as greater than the base rate for a terrorist attack. As a result, vehicle traffic increased over 5% in the months and, sadly, fatal accidents rose 8%, as well.

Due to the availability bias, Americans decisionmaking was negatively affected, compelling them to make decisions to drive — a method of transportation that was probabilistically less safe than flying in the months after 9/11.

Biases And Decisionmaking

As the availability heuristic places undue importance on issues that are most available, it focuses our attention away from issues that are, statistically, more important.

There is an irony in the government being shut down over an immigration issue. Much has been said of the negative impact that the extensive government shutdown will have on the economy.

The economy, however, was the single most important voting issue in the 2016 election — 14 percentage points more important than immigration, according to the Pew Research Center.

Here, we see the heuristic becoming a bias, which in turn may negatively impact decisionmaking. While the decisionmaker in question is far from rational, the administration becomes further emboldened to pursue this immigration issue as more Americans believe it is an important issue. This, in turn, results in the government pursuing an agenda that is not actually in their best interests, assuming that a strong economy is more important to voters than immigration issues.

We see a similar phenomenon during election cycles. “Name recognition” is a vital benefit to political candidates and something that Trump benefitted from greatly. When voters are more easily able to recall a candidate (especially one with a vivid narrative), they may then more easily make judgments and subsequent decisions about that candidate and their voting preference. However, voters are opening themselves up to a distorted understanding of associated risks, as a result.

Overcoming The Availability Bias

A major component of Kahneman and Tversky’s research on judgments under uncertainty included the categorization of thinking into two systems, inventively named System 1 and System 2 thinking.

System 1 thinking is characterized as fast, automatic, unconscious and therefore error-prone thinking and decisionmaking. Whereas System 2 thinking is characterized as slow, deliberate, conscious thinking that is, therefore, more rational and reliable.

When we use the availability heuristic to make judgments and decisions, we are using System 1 thinking. The challenge — and opportunity — is compelling voters to use System 2 thinking to assess the talking points set by the government and perpetuated by the media.

If we want to overcome availability bias, we need to remain diligent in our assessment of what we are viewing in the news. While immigration is oft talked about, ask yourself — has this always been a major issue? Could it seem more important simply because of the amount of news coverage it’s getting at present? What other issues have, objectively, been more important issues, that are currently being overshadowed?

Whether or not voters are inclined to see past their own biases in politics is another conversation altogether. However, Americans on both sides of the aisle should be incentivized to use System 2 thinking to focus on what is most important to the country.

Otherwise, we’ll continue to let the government set the agenda. The more they talk about an issue, the more the populace believes it is important. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, when we focus on the wrong issues — and shut our government down over them — it’s ruining the country.

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