That Damn Availability Bias

People often base their prediction of the frequency of an event on how easily an example can be brought to mind.  This is called an Availability Bias.  For example, what happens more often – murder or suicide?  The correct answer is suicide but most people say murder because murders receive more publicity than suicides.

Why is this important?

Consider the news media.  It’s their job to report current events; what’s going on today.  Right now with the presidential election less than a week away, national politics understandably dominates the headlines.  However, two weeks ago it was the banking crisis, and before that it was oil and the Iraq war.  It’s important to stay abreast with current events but equally important to keep the big picture in mind and not become distracted by the new, shiny issue of the week (i.e. fall victim to availability bias).

So here’s a thought: after the election on November 4 and the spotlight leaves Sen. Obama or McCain for a few months, let’s not lose sight of the global political landscape.  Undoubtedly new issues and “crises” will appear between November 4 and the January 20, 2009 inauguration but few will be as significant (to Americans at least) as the direction this country will take under new leadership.

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5 Responses to That Damn Availability Bias

  1. Bryce says:

    So here’s my thought: there’s no question that an availability bias exists, largely in part to people/Americans going to such limited lengths to procure information, making the topics featured on mainstream media the most “important” issues of the moment.

    Like you said, the focus right now is on the direction of the country because that direction will be hugely impacted in the very short-term (Tuesday). Additionally, the previous hot topics that you mentioned (banking crisis, oil, Iraq war) are all still relevant. My hope is that regardless/in consideration of new crises, the media will use the interim period between the election and inauguration to look at the “global political landscape” by tying together the direction that the President-elect plans to take the country on all of the issues as he starts exercising his appointment power (arguably the most impactful power he’s granted) in lining up his Cabinet and filling out the Executive Branch. These decisions can/will also be affected by any changes in Congress. The whole process will provide grounds for analysis/evaluation/insight from the media, and effectively provide the opportunity to synthesize the big-picture direction for the country.

  2. Joe Cure says:

    Great points. Let’s be clear on distinguishing (1) what we’d like to happen (2) what should happen (3) what will happen

    (1) It’d be awesome if what you’re describing occurred. If I’m understanding your points correctly you’re agreeing with what I wrote and explaining how the media could help minimize the availability bias

    (2) Media companies are for profit ventures, they have no responsibility to anyone other than their employees and shareholders. Therefore they “should” do whatever will make them the most money. Unfortunately that probably isn’t the same as what you’ve outlined

    (3) We’ll have to wait and see. My hope is regardless of what the media covers, people will choose to continue educating themselves on national and global politics so we Americans don’t repeat the mistake we made in 2004 ever again.

  3. Bryce says:

    That’s essentially what I’m saying, and I completely agree it’s unlikely that the media will neglect to take this opportunity to paint the big picture of the global political landscape, in favor of discussing the shiny new item of the week. Further, I think we’re both giving the American public too much credit in thinking they will a. seek to educate themselves about domestic/global politics and b. provide a market for the mass media to do what I outlined previously.

    The one additional scenario I want to address is if the President-elect suggests nominating someone (in the most extreme example) as outrageous as Bush’s Miers idea, we might have a newsworthy situation–similar to 2005–that would encourage media companies to discuss many contemporary issues in conjunction and, in effect, minimize the availability bias.

  4. Joe Cure says:

    Do you mean “it’s likely the media will neglect”…?

    And to clarify, I’m not taking a position on what will happen (i.e. if the American public will or will not choose to educate themselves), simply what I would like to have happen

  5. Bryce says:

    My mistake–definitely meant to say “it’s unlikely that the media will take this opportunity…”

    By the way, that’s an awesome email you got (How Not to Pitch Your Company). I especially enjoyed the forgotten “are” in “I can only hope that you smart enough to tell a good proposal from a bad one.” [insert obvious joke about smartness here].

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