Availability Heuristic

February 17, 2007

stockholm-escalator.jpgThe availability heuristic is a form of cognitive bias where people draw conclusions about information dependent on its availability. The greater the frequency and intensity of an experience, the more significant and valid it will become. This can be frequently seen on the evening news which every so often instills fear in its viewers by covering horrific albeit highly uncommon stories. For example a boy gets his shoelace stuck in an escalator causing him to trip and break his leg. Because the story is portrayed as important news and is often accompanied by dramatic music, frequent cuts, and flashing computer graphics, most people retain this information in their mind more readily than their actual mundane experience of surviving an escalator without injury.

In regards to the Internet there has been some controversy in regards to the ranking methods of the popular search engines such as Google. In brief, when one searches for a term a list will appear with ten websites related to your term on the first page. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to perform what is called ‘searched engine optimization’. Being number one or at the very least to be listed on the first page is very important for exposure and marketing. If a potential customer searches for ‘donut store’ I, as a business, want them to visit my site before anyone else’s. Whether or not my site will be on the top of this list is dependent on a formula which Google keeps secret. This formula includes a large number of factors but great weight is given to the amount of traffic i.e. how many visitors view the site. Therefore, the more people see the site the greater the likelihood an individual will be exposed to the same site through search engines. In other words, accurate information is not necessarily given more exposure than more viewed information. Many are greatly critical of this. Ideally, more accurate information would be viewed more frequently and therefore its exposure would be heightened. Unfortunately, this is not always the case because sensationalism is much more entertaining than accuracy.

Take an individual who has been philanthropic throughout their life. They have dedicated themselves to helping the world but due to an unfortunate event something highly controversial has tainted their image. The number of websites which will cover this event in combination with what seems to be our desire for the controversial will perpetuate the negativity associated with this individual. Before the event one would search for the philanthropist’s name and find the number of organization he has donated money to, whereas after the controversy one will type in his name and find the first twenty pages dedicated to the controversial story. Considering our increasing use of search engines this has many implications on the availability heuristic.