Welcome back to HRW’s Behavioral Summer Camp: where, throughout August, our internal team of behavioral scientists (known as HRW Shift) will teach you about some of the larger principles that drive behavior.
For week three’s activity, we return to two quick quiz questions. Have a look at the questions below to get your brain juices flowing, then scroll down for the solution.
We hope you enjoy.
The HRW Shift team
If a random word is taken from an English text, is it more likely that the word starts with ‘R’, or that ‘R’ is the third letter in that word?
a) The word starts with ‘R’
b) The third letter of the word is ‘R’
Which do you believe is the more likely cause of death for people in the United States given the following option sets…?
This week, our questions tested your knowledge of vocabulary and mortality rates. Each question was designed to demonstrate the impact of recall and retrievability on our ability to judge the probability of events. As discussed in week one’s solution, judging probabilities is a not an easy cognitive calculation. As inherently bad statisticians, people rely on mental shortcuts when faced with difficult questions under uncertainty. This week we explore the way in which we rely on ease of recall, retrievability, and emotional reactions to evaluate likelihoods, known as the availability heuristic.
The availability heuristic is used to describe the way our brain assumes that if something is easy to recall, then it is important (or likely to occur). If we are not on alert, this mental simplification tool may lead us to forgo the base rate or other statistical considerations in favor of what is simply easier to remember.
Take for example the first question above: if an English word is selected at random, is it more likely that it starts with the letter ‘R’ or that ‘R’ is the third letter of the word. For many, they can quickly come up with examples of words that start with ‘R’ (reduce, right, round, etc.) while it takes more time to think of examples of words with ‘R’ as the third letter (turn, shrink, alright, etc.). Due to more readily available examples of ‘R’ as the first letter, Option A might seem more likely. Considering all available words in the English language however, there are 2.5 times as many words that have ‘R’ as the third letter, making Option B the correct choice. [Overall 8,955 words in the English language start with ‘R’ while 22,809 have ‘R’ as the third letter.]
There are many factors that impact a person’s ability to remember or retrieve information. The availability heuristic also leaves us vulnerable to more salient, dramatic, and emotional events. The tendency to give more weight to personal experiences or preferences is called the affect bias.
The second question around mortality rates in the United States is meant to exploit how we give more weight to topics that are sensationalized in the media or pop culture. Based on the National Center for Health Statistics, the US National Safety Council estimates that Americans are over 20 times more likely to die of a horse related incident compared to a shark attack, are 70 times more likely to die from falling on the stairs or steps than being bitten or struck by a dog, and are nearly 50 times more likely to die of alcohol poisoning than from being struck by lightning. Even though Americans are significantly less likely to die from a shark attack, dog related injury, or a lightning strike, repetition in mainstream culture generates a greater prevalence of dramatic examples and therefore greater familiarity with these events. Ultimately, we are biased toward information that is top of mind. We make quick judgements based on recall, which preserves our cognitive energy, but often leads us to overestimate the commonness of a memorable event and undervalue events that are more difficult to recall.
Please contact our team of behavioral experts, HRW Shift, if you would like to find out more.