#2 Availability Bias: Why we massively overestimate our chances of success

Of all the mental tasks we suck at performing, estimating the likelihood of something really good or really bad happening is right up there. In this episode, Mel and Dan unpack the ingredients that lead to our terrible mental calculations, and discuss how we can reconfigure them to create more compelling ads

Dan: 00:17 Hey, I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat.

Mel: 00:19 And I'm Dr. Mel Weinberg, a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:22 And if you're listening to this podcast, it's because you're interested in why we choose what we choose-

Mel: 00:26 Why we think what we think-

Dan: 00:27 And how to exploit these things for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:31 Dan, you promised me this would be ethical.

Dan: 00:33 This is totally ethical but let's be real, that's what we're here to do.

So, Mel, I was thinking we seem to be terrible at estimating the likelihood with which things happen. People seem to really overestimate the likelihood of things like winning the lottery, or their startup getting bought by Facebook for a billion dollars.

Mel: 01:00 Yeah, it goes the other way as well. We also tend to underestimate the likelihood that bad things are going to happen to us in the future. We always think that if we look ahead into our future that bad things are more likely to happen to other people than they are to us.

Dan: 01:12 Yeah, which is kind of weird right? It seems like instead of going through all the hard work of getting the data and crunching the stats and making an educated guess about how likely something is to happen, we seem to do this weird kind of mental gymnastics trick where we're like "Hey brain, find me an example of startups getting bought by Facebook for a billion dollars". And it would appear that the easier it is for our brain to produce an example of that, the more likely we think it is for that thing to happen.

Mel: 01:39 Yeah, so basically what you're explaining is a psychological phenomenon called the Availability Bias. It was introduced to us by a couple of legends called Kahneman and Tversky, amongst a host of other types of heuristics and biases that they identified. The common example that they give is when they ask people to guess or to estimate whether, if they think about all the words in the english language, are there more words that start with the letter K, or that have K as the third letter. Do you want to have a go?

Dan: 02:11 Okay, let’s do this.

Mel: 02:12 Alright, how many words can you think of that start with the letter K?

Dan: 02:14 You go first.

Mel: 02:14 Okay. Kiss.

Dan: 02:18 That's cute. That's with a C. Kickboxing.

Mel: 02:22 Kill.

Dan: 02:24 Knuckle.

Mel: 02:25 Kind.

Dan: 02:26 Karate.

Mel: 02:26 Knife.

Dan: 02:29 Kar- I said Karate. Karaoke!

Mel: 02:30 You're out, you're out, you're out!

Dan: 02:30 There's lives, there's lives! Kangaroo!

Mel: 02:30 Kangaroo, okay.

Dan: 02:30 Knickerbocker.

Mel: 02:30 King.

Dan: 02:30 Knuckle.

Mel: 02:36 Knife. You said knuckle.

Dan: 02:38 Damn it, Okay. Go on.

Mel: 02:39 Anyway, there's heaps, right? How many words can you think of that have K as the third letter?

Dan: 02:44 Ask.

Mel: 02:45 Take.

Dan: 02:49 Make.

Mel: 02:49 Bake.

Dan: 02:49 Cake.

Mel: 02:52 Acknowledge.

Dan: 02:57 I got nothing.

Mel: 02:58 Okay, so basically the same thing that you explained before about how your brain searches for bits of information.

Dan: 03:03 There are no words with K as the third letter, clearly.

Mel: 03:05 Well, see it's not exactly true. In fact there are many, many more words in the english language that actually do have K as the third letter, it's just that it's so much easier for us to remember words that start with the letter K because that's how we process information. We process words alphabetically. We have rules for the way that we store information and they dictate how easy it is, or how difficult it is for us to retrieve that information.

So basically what Kahneman and Tversky show us with that experiment was that, if you want to think of words that start with the letter K, or you want to answer this question, you don't actually know how many words start with the letter K, you don't actually know how many words have K as the third letter. So you say to your brain “Brain go and find me examples of words that start with the letter K". It's easy you can think of heaps - that's how we store information. But if you say to your brain “Hang on a second can you find some words for me that have K as the third letter?" And all of a sudden your brain comes up blank.

Dan: 03:55 While you're describing this, I don't know about you listening, but I'm imagining my brain as Tom Cruise in Minority Report calling up all of these examples on a giant moving screen, waving his arms around. That's basically what happens, yes?

Mel: 04:07 Great movie, great reference, totally appreciate it. Pretty much, we're just searching for information. And that's what Kahneman and Tversky called the Availability Bias, and that was the classic example that they used to teach us about how it works.

Dan: 04:19 Right, so, as marketers what does this mean for us?

Mel: 04:24 You're the marketing guru.

Dan: 04:24 Oh, right.

Mel: 04:26 I'm just the psychologist.

Dan: 04:28 Clearly as marketers we want to be words that start with K. We don't want to be words with K as the third letter. When we are promoting a product, a service, a brand, we want our prospective customers to think about us and think about the benefits they're likely to get from using our product, service, brand, far more often and to be far more frequently occurring than they otherwise might, right?

Mel: 04:52 So you want to play with people's minds?

Dan: 04:56 Yes, that's what we do right? As advertisers, we're choice architects, we're trying to get people to choose certain things. So, if what you're telling me, and what we're talking about today is the fact that the easier something is to recall, the more likely we think it is to happen. Then obviously we need to ask ourselves, how do we make things easier to recall and therefore seem more likely to happen.

Mel: 05:17 There is a way that we can do that, and there are some things that we know about the way that we store information that can make it more easy to retrieve. I'll give you three examples. The first thing that makes it easier for us to recall something is how recent it is. If you imagine that your brain has multiple compartments, and it's constantly taking in new information, the most recent information has part of place in your brain and in your awareness, until something else comes along to replace it. The more recent something is, the easier it is for us to remember, so, if you think about a couple of years ago with the Malaysian airlines flight that went missing. And for a few days after that, all people were thinking about with regard to aeroplanes when the word aeroplane popped up, people were thinking about aeroplanes going missing.

Dan: 06:02 Right, because it just happened right?

Mel: 06:04 And it was fearful, right then for a few days afterwards people were thinking “I don't want to fly, I definitely don't want to fly Malaysian Airlines, I don't really want to fly anywhere near Asia”. Slowly though after that as more instances, or as more days passed where there weren't any planes going missing, that became more common, and that became more frequent. The example of the Malaysian Airlines flight was that, for as long as it was in recent memory, and recently available, it was very easy for us to pay attention to it and to recall it.

Dan: 06:36 So the more recently something's happened, the easier it is for us to remember, and that makes sense because people forget stuff, we forget stuff all the time. If we saw it this morning we're way more likely to remember it than if we saw it six weeks ago.

Mel: 06:49 And because we're more likely to remember it, we think it's more likely to happen again.

Dan: 06:49 I've got a couple of young kids, one of the things I learned very early on is as soon as my son has a bad incident with something- he falls off a slide at a park, the first thing we’ve got to do is put him straight back on there. And I guess now what we're explaining is that that pushes the most recent memory of falling off a slide down the list, or down the giant Facebook news feed that is our brain, and adds new memories on top of it pushing it further and further and further away until one day he's a messed up 28 year old and can't remember why, and one day realises because he fell off a slide and his dad never acknowledged it. Or something like that.

Mel: 07:25 Parenting tips to come in the near future.

Dan: 07:28 Yeah, yeah. Talk to me about marketing, don't talk to me about parenting.

Mel: 07:30 Alright, so we've covered recency, making something more recent can make it easier to remember. The next thing has to do with the emotional intensity. If you think about the way that your brain processes and stores information, the area of your brain that is responsible for storing memories is right next to the part that's responsible for storing emotions. So these things go together and these things are very highly connected.

If I asked you to think about the happiest moments of your life, go.

Dan: 07:56 My wedding day, the birth of my children.

Mel: 07:59 I'm calling bullshit Dan, they are the things that you're supposed to say. Be honest.

Dan: 08:00 Yeah, but they're happy.

I got this pair of Jordan 11s-

Mel: 08:05 Now we're talking.

Dan: 08:07 When they were released in the U.S. people actually burnt down footlocker stores, and I just walked straight into a shop here, they had one pair left in my size. Must have been 2007.

Mel: 08:16 Could probably recall the exact date, can you hear the passion in his voice. Alright this is an emotionally intense-

Dan: 08:16 The smell, oh you open up the box and just- anyway.

Mel: 08:25 This is a vivid, emotionally intense experience. What about if I ask you to think about the times in your life where you were most relaxed?

Dan: 08:31 Yeah, yeah, an example?

Mel: 08:32 Okay, you can tell me.

Dan: 08:34 Example. Intellectually I know the answer, I was probably on a beach somewhere on a holiday?

Mel: 08:43 Cause that's where you're supposed to be relaxed.

Dan: 08:46 Like the most relaxed?

Mel: 08:52 It's hard, right, because an emotion like feeling relaxed, feeling calm, feeling tired, or feeling sleeping don't have the same intensity as emotions like being happy, being sad, being terrified, being excited. Anything that has a higher emotional intensity, any memory that is associated with a more intense emotion is going to be much easier for us to find. It's gonna stand out in our brain when we go searching for things. The ones that have the emotional attachments are gonna have the big spotlights on them, the ones we’re gonna be directed to.

Dan: 09:23 It's like in all caps with all the hashtags. Very easy to locate for future reference.

Mel: 09:27 Easy to find, that's it.

Dan: 09:28 So, I guess if we go back to that Malaysian Airlines example, right. We talked about the perfect storm for that. It happened very recently and clearly a missing plane, just like a car crash or a shark attack is high on the emotional spectrum.

Mel: 09:43 Definitely and those are the things that make it. Yeah you can say emotional spectrum, that's a thing.

Dan: 09:47 Yeah. Good, scientific.

Mel: 09:47 I'll pay that.

Dan: 09:47 It punches us in the brain.

Mel: 09:47 No.

Dan: 09:53 No, it doesn't do that.

Mel: 09:55 Stick with by your head.

Dan: 09:55 Emotional spectrum.

Mel: 09:58 Yes, the emotional spectrum of things if we're going from low alertness, low arousal to high alertness, high aroused. The things that are on the higher end of that spectrum are gonna be more memorable.

Dan: 10:09 Right.

Mel: 10:09 So, the third thing that we can do to make a memory more available is to give it some personal significance. Let's think of the example of something that nobody should ever do but a lot of people are typically guilty of on a frequent basis. Let's say texting and driving. We all know we're not supposed to text and drive and it's very dangerous and that if you get caught there are terrible consequences. At the very least you might get some demerit points and a heavy fine, at the very least. We know these things but it still doesn't really stop us from doing the behaviour. The thing that might stop us or make us think twice about engaging in that behaviour is if we hear that our best friend, our sibling or our parent has just been busted, been caught, been fined and had it happen to them. What happens is we see, “okay that's just happened to somebody who is very much like us. If it can happen to them it is more likely to happen to us.”

So, because we can easily recall an instance of it happening to somebody just like us, it's front and centre of our memory.

Dan: 11:12 I guess what's weird about this it can completely override nonsensical things. Somebody who has a relative who smokes a pack a day and lives to 106 for some reason believes or over indexes in the belief that you can smoke and live a long life, even though the facts clearly would suggest that the opposite is true.

Mel: 11:34 Well, if you're looking for instances of smoking related deaths, you think okay, well I know somebody who smoked and they lived till 110, so I don't know if I believe in that.

Dan: 11:34 Yeah.

Mel: 11:43 So we'd certainly overestimate the importance and the frequency of these things based on how personally significant it is to us.

Dan: 11:49 Cool. So, just to recap here, not all memories are created equal.

Mel: 11:54 Certainly not.

Dan: 11:54 The easier it is to pry out a memory, the more likely we are to think something is going to happen. Creating memories that are more powerful and more easily recalled, we need to make them recent, we need to make them emotional and we need to make them as personally relevant as we can for our audience.

Mel: 12:11 Yep.

Dan: 12:11 So, if we think about how we might wrap this up as a marketing campaign or as a thing that might happen for a real life business product or service out there. Let's imagine a university and the university has a sport's science program and it's obviously trying to attract undergrad students into that program. Some of the previous alumni from that program have gone on to exceptional careers in the best sporting leagues in the world. Out of the thousands and thousands of graduates that have come and gone, a handful have found their way into the NBA, the NFL, the English Premier League, whatever it is. Taking what we've learned today, if a university were to produce a whole bunch of content, highly emotional stories that were displayed very frequently through the likes of say social media, to the right audience, which featured people that looked like, smelt like, seemed like their audience - and these guys went out and achieved things that were emotionally significant and exciting and interesting … perspective students would not be able think that the likelihood of that happening to them is higher than it actually is. Is that what we're saying here?

Mel: 13:21 Yeah, I mean you try to compete with a whole bunch of other information that a person's brain is taking in. So, you're looking at what you can do, knowing what we know about how the brain works to make your information the most readily available and seemingly important information to them.

Dan: 13:37 I guess what you're trying to say here, and I'll just be blunt about it before the ethical police start talking about us manipulating people, let's be honest, the advertising industry, those of us that work in ads and marketing. We are here to change people's mind, that is our whole remit. Anybody that tells you anything different is lying or self delusional. We're here to make people choose our products, our clients products over other peoples, so we might as well be good at it. Understanding how people remember things and knowing that the easier it is to recall a memory, the more likely people are to believe it is something that we should absolutely consider. I guess what we've learned about today is one such technique to help us do that, called:

Mel: 14:17 The availability bias.

Dan: 14:17 Awesome. All right. Do we have anything else to talk about on the Availability Bias?

Mel: 14:20 Do we?

Dan: 14:20 I don't know, I have a fun fact.

Mel: 14:23 Give me a fun fact.

Dan: 14:25 More people, I think over 20 people a year die taking selfies.

Mel: 14:31 Ouch.

Dan: 14:32 Less than two people a year in Australia die from shark attacks.

Mel: 14:35 I'm never taking a selfie again.

Dan: 14:36 Yeah, we should fear selfies way more than than we should fear sharks.

Mel: 14:39 It's probably the reason I'm still alive is cause I don't take selfies.

Dan: 14:42 All right, I think we should start a campaign, stop the selfies, it's for your own good. All right, I think that's it for this episode. Come back next time for more about why people choose what they choose.

Mel: 14:53 Why people think the way they think.

Dan: 14:55 And how to exploit them for profit and fun.

Mel: 14:55 Ethically.

Speaker 3: 14:55 (Music playing)