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.

Informational Influence

February 10, 2007

Informational influence is a form of conformity which occurs when an individual turns to another in order to obtain information. Unlike normative conformity, informational social influence results from an individual thinking that someone else has more accurate information then they do. It is theorized that this is more likely to occur when one is unaware of what to do and so turns to someone for insight, when a panic inducing situation occurs and a quick decision needs to be made, and when one perceives that the other is more knowledgeable and therefore may be right about the information they provide.

I find this particular phenomenon to take on specific qualities on the Internet. One may be frequently susceptible to informational influence in academic settings or during religious gatherings; however the individual being followed is often in plane view. On the Internet there is no such person standing in front of the room speaking or guiding the group. Nonetheless informational influence certainly occurs.   

One cue used in forums, which can be dedicated to any subject ranging from music to international politics, is the ‘post counter’. A little number under a user’s screen-name will reveal how many times they have written a post. Some forums will even create a ranking system. When one signs up they have zero posts and therefore a novice but as they become involved in the community and continue to make new posts, their ranking changes to expert. Generally the contributions (i.e. information) written by users with the most posts and therefore a higher ranking are considered to be more valid then those of new users. Users will often believe in information provided by these individuals rather than others.

Because the Internet is in many respects a database, the information stored is portrayed and interpreted in a different way than by exposure through meetings in person. The influence physical appearance such as clothing has on the perception of authority is a different social psychological phenomenon, yet it is an important factor in informational influence. Since people do not see how an individual behind a website appears, the web designer can do a number of things to improve the visual aspects of the site, which in a way replaces the physical appearance of the individual. This in turn gives the impression that the information on the website is more credible.

A well designed website can be particularly effective if it organizes and portrays information in a particular way. This tactic is effective with older individuals or those who have not gained much experience with computers. For the untrained eye the Internet can be an incredibly ambiguous place. There are hundreds of websites where one can purchase the exact same product and the goal of a vast many sites it to lead the reader inexorably to the ‘buy’ button.

The mere fact that the Internet is text based is also a form of informational influence in itself. People often feel that information conveyed through text is more reliable than information passed through word of mouth.

Example of information influence and design:

I searched “Free Medication” in google just to see what I would find. I have not looked at these sites in depth, nor am I completely aware of what they have to offer, but by simply looking at each, one can get a distinct impression.

1) TheMedicineProgram – this site is not terrible but the ‘google ads’ on the side immediately create an impression that something is not right. Why would such a program need to generate income from these ads?

2) NeedMeds – the site seems to be amateurish and there are advertisements on the side but they are pictured based. There as donation button near the bottom and in general a good deal of information is available.

3) RXASSIT  – the design gives the impression of a professional service. The structure of the site seems direct and there is little to no irrelevant information.

Some would pick site 3 because their professional design is most assuring. However, it may be that they are ultimately a business and require payment for their services. The cost to design their site was most likely pricey. Perhaps site 2 will offer the best information because they run off of donations and provide information openly.