Availability Bias, Attentional Bias and Representativeness Bias

In our evolutionary past, whoever thought for too long got killed by the predator’s jaws. So, quick decision-making was rewarded. We are the descendants of such quick decision makers and, therefore, we still have many cognitive biases sitting in our head and we are not conscious of these biases.

In my previous posts, I have written about some biases such as the planning fallacy, overconfidence effect, confirmation bias, halo effect, outcome bias, and affective forecasting. Understanding these biases can help us recognize them in our daily lives and we may, in turn, provide ourselves an opportunity to tune our behavior and perspective. In this post, let us understand some more popular cognitive biases.

Availability Bias

Availability Bias is a cognitive bias in which we over weigh the evidence that easily comes to our mind. Our mind assumes that things come easily to our mind because they are more common or frequent in the real world and, hence, should hold more weight in the world. But, this can be grossly misleading. We create a picture of the world using the examples that most easily come to our mind, and it need not represent the reality; in fact, it often doesn’t.

Availability Bias is at the root of many other human cognitive biases and culture-level biases. An example of an availability bias is how we quickly form an opinion about a city or a person based on evidence that immediately occurs in our mind. ‘Oh! India!, I’ve seen it on TV. It is full of elephants, poverty and rapists.’ 

The bias is sometimes also rooted from the relative emotion one feels towards the entity. ‘I love New York and I am so comfortable. So, it shouldn’t be nice out there in the west coast then. Definitely not better than NYC.’ The best way to fend off this bias is by spending time with people who think differently than the way you think – people whose experiences and expertise is very different than yours.

Attentional Bias

Attentional Bias is our tendency of our perception or judgement to be affected by our recurring thoughts. Wikipedia provides an example of attentional bias as: people who frequently think about clothes they wear, pay more attention to the clothes other people wear. We focus our attention only on a few options, while we ignore the rest of the options, to come to conclusions.

Researchers have found that emotional states can highly influence attentional bias. This bias has dramatic impact on the decision-making process of individuals and can lead to wrong decisions. People who have high anxiety or depression levels are more prone to attentional bias.

Representativeness Bias

Often, we pick only a few traits or characteristics of a person or thing and then stereotype the person or thing. For example, we look at a person and think: he is a calm guy, so he won’t know about pubs or he cannot be a salesman. Similarly, some doctors always recommend similar treatments (their favorite treatments) for even different cases.

Social psychologists Tversky and Kahneman have studied several important heuristics and biases and discovered errors associated with their use. Instead of looking at the event in isolation and calculating the probabilities, an individual with representativeness bias will simply ask whether this event seems like other events he has seen before. More often than not, the indiidual will simply recognize an event that is similar to something he has seen elsewhere and conclude, often incorrectly, that this event will be the same, leading us to the wrong kind of thinking. When we see a man running out of a bank, we might assume that he is a robber. What we are doing is using running to represent the activity of robbing. Similarly, if we met someone big, our immediate reaction might be to be intimidated, associating size with aggression.


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