Thursday, April 28, 2005

Availability Heuristic

This is a term that I learned in a college psychology class years ago and rarely if ever hear specific mention of this term, although we experience examples of it every day. Here is a definition from Wikipedia. Basically this occurs when people estimate the probability of an outcome based on how easy that outcome is to imagine or recall, resulting in the overestimation of occurrences which are vivid or emotionally charged.

This phenomenon came to mind today as I was reading a brief article in the May Discover Magazine titled "One thing you can't put off: DEATH". The article mentions research that dispells the myth that terminally ill patients can postpone their passing until after an important holiday or birthday or until they are surrounded by loved ones. The emotions surrounding an event like that are much more easily recalled than the uneventful passing of someone in the middle of the night on a tuesday of a regular work week with few or no loved ones around. The easy recall of the more emotional death causes it to seem more likely.

Another example would be the feeling that washing your car causes it to rain. You are much more likely to remember the times that you washed your car and it rained becuse of the ensuing anger or disappointment, than all the times you washed your car and it didn't rain which again causes it to seem more likely.

Here is a good piece on Personal Experience and Coincidence which includes an explanation of the availability heuristic. This is from Critical Thinking Lessons at Scottsdale Community College.

Although I have no doubts about the information presented in the Discover article, I find the timing of two deaths in American history interesting. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two great American founding fathers, died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.



Blogger oldwhitelady said...

Well, washing the car and causing it to rain can also be tied to leaving the windows down in the car, overnight. That recently happened to me. However, it's been raining a lot, so I guess I didn't cause the rain:)
I was under the impression that terminally ill people could keep themselves alive if whatever they are waiting for is important enough.

9:39 PM  

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