"How can that be? Everybody I know..." (Availability Bias)
By Scott Hughes
“How can that be? Everybody that I know…” Fill in the blank … “votes a particular way or believes a certain way or acts a certain way.” When we rely exclusively on information readily available to us to draw conclusions, we are likely guilty of the availability heuristic – a cognitive bias that Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, refers to with the acronym WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). He clarifies,
“You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
(Thinking, Fast and Slow, 201)
I wonder if the apostle Paul was guilty of this when he was persecuting Christians. Paul saw factions of Jews leaving the orthodox faith and worshiping a leader, Jesus of Nazareth (now dead), whom Paul judged to be misguided. (His mentor, Rabbi Gamaliel, talked similarly of the fate of other misguided leaders in Acts 5:36-37.) Paul would have known that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Galatians 3:13). Paul could have easily fit the peculiar ministry of Jesus into a narrative that had seen similar failed messiahs come and go. Thus, WYSIATI.
More commonly, we see the availability heuristic at play when people point out the exception to the rule. They give too much reliance and credibility to the person they knew who ate at McDonalds everyday and lived to be a hundred years old as justification for their poor diets. They overestimate that anecdotal evidence in relation to all the other scientific evidence that suggests eating such a diet will likely result in physical decline; thus WYSIATI. We can do this when we surround ourselves only with those who agree with us. We might have heard someone exclaim, “How is it possible for Trump be leading in the polls? Everyone I know is voting for Hilary!” (Or vice versa.)
With Paul, it took Jesus appearing to him in a vision (that also resulted in temporary blindness) for him to overcome the availability heuristic or WYSIATI. Thankfully, overcoming this bias doesn’t always require receiving a divine vision. Instead, it requires us first to acknowledge just how limited our perspective is. Even if “everyone” on our Facebook page has a similar perspective, that does not mean a larger population has that view.
Second, we can intentionally explore alternative information and deliberately seek out people who will challenge us.
Courageous Conversation sample outlines are designed for learners to hear and acknowledge perspectives that challenge “what everybody I know” assumes to be true. When we open ourselves up to doubt, often we find a more “secure foundation” that rests solely on our faith in Christ.
How many people that you know well have opinions that differ from yours on particular “hot button” issues? How can you find people to challenge you?
Can you think of any other stories from Scripture that demonstrate the availability heuristic?
Whatever your normal news outlets are, fast from them for a week. Read or watch those you normally mistrust or doubt. What do you learn about yourself?