Tag Archives: Cognitive Bias

Mental Mistakes: The Availability Heuristic

This is the first part of a series on the topic of mental mistakes, thinking errors that we make on a daily basis. Read the others here.

How frequently would you guess car accidents occur?

To make this kind of judgement, you’re not going to try to count the number of car accidents you’ve seen over a 24 hour period then use some sort of complicated mental algorithm to expand that number into a general frequency. That would be mentally exhausting.

Instead, you’re going to use a shortcut. You’re going to make an educated guess, and more than likely, you’re going to be very wrong.

We make hundreds of mistakes like this on a daily basis, mistakes than can be attributed to mental biases or cognitive errors. Understanding them further can provide some insight into various aspects of our lives such as:

  • How the media shapes your perception of the world
  • Why you can’t accurately estimate the frequency of seven-letter words that have “n” in the sixth position

To understand these items and more, we have to take an insider look at one of the most common cognitive errors we make on a daily basis – the Availability Heuristic.

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How to Make Better Decisions Based on Science


Unless you’re a cyborg, you couldn’t help but think of the number “4″ when you saw the above expression. In the same way, the partial phrase “bread and” leaves you with the word “butter” on the tip of your tongue. That’s no accident.

Our brains make thousands of decisions every day. Many of them (like whether you want cream and sugar in your coffee) seem to be automatic. Others (like where you want to go for dinner) can be a bit more taxing and require mental effort.

Research has identified two seemingly separate “systems” of the brain responsible for decision-making. In order to make better decisions, we need to understand what each of these systems is responsible for and how we can shift from one to the other.

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