If I had a nickel for every danger, real and imagined, that I’ve had since becoming a parent, I’d be a pretty wealthy person. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the fears that I’ve had. Some of them may even have been useful, like the gallon of sunscreen I all but bathed my oldest in at the start of her first summer (no sunburn for that kid!).
The problem with my fears is that they often don’t line up with statistical reality. I remember feeling paranoid about my daughter’s first plane ride. Not just the usual paranoia of how I keep an infant occupied for several hours on a plane, but real fear about the dangers of taking her on an airplane. The bizarre aspect of this fear is that I had placed her in a car not too long after her birth and the likelihood of a car accident is so much more significantly higher than a plane crash. In other words, why am I afraid of shark attacks when the odds of actually being attacked by a shark are really low?
Rustling in the Bushes
The problem is something called the availability heuristic. This is a cognitive bias, like confirmation bias or present bias, that is designed to help us better understand uncertain situations and make decisions on what to do. Essentially, the availability heuristic works by helping us make judgments about the likelihood of an event based upon our recall of similar examples.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense. If we heard rustling in the bushes and applied the availability heuristic, we might make the decision to grab our spear because our previous encounters with rustling in the bushes indicated that something large with teeth that wanted to eat us was there. We recall the fear and then act upon that fear because we can recall a similar situation.
Modern life, however, has created a challenge for using the availability heuristic to make decisions. We are more afraid of things like child abduction, sharks, and plane crashes despite the low probability and our lack of personal experience with any of these events. Why? Because through media exposure, we are now able to recall events that we don’t have any personal experience with. The more primitive part of our brains, though, do not discriminate between direct and indirect experience and are able to generate fear and anxiety.
Defining the Availability Heuristic
The availability heuristic is one of a number of cognitive biases that appear to be inherent in the way that we think and process the world. The term was first proposed in 1973 by Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. At its most basic, the principal means that “if you can think of it, it must be important.” In other words, things that you can recall more easily are more likely to occur and are therefore more accurate representations of the world.
The availability heuristic seems to work on a combination of both how easily an event comes to mind as well as how recently the information was viewed. It is a mental shortcut because we cannot remember everything.This is further complicated by the phenomenon of “if it bleeds, it leads” in our news media. Kahneman wrote, “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retreat from memory-and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.” This coverage makes us think that rare events are more likely.
Anecdotes and Data
We pride ourselves on looking at evidence and making what we think are calm, rational decisions. We may know the statistics about shark attacks, but exposure to sensational news stories or watching Jaws a few too many times makes us think otherwise. Anecdotes can be considered points of data, but a few anecdotes do not equal statistics.
We want to trust the numbers, but human nature is running in the opposite direction. It says to us that data equals anecdotes. We are hardwired to take the anecdotes more seriously than we are the hard, rational data that we are presented Basically, statistics cannot compete with our own innate sense of fear.
Essentially, the availability heuristic has thrown off our ability to judge probability and risk. It pushes us to overweight the possibility that something that is statistically rare might happen. It might even encourage us to take excessive risks or on the flipside frees us into inaction. As parents, though, we are responsible for making decisions for our children that could essentially be based on faulty data.
We continue to use the availability heuristic because it works. We don’t always have the ability to investigate things deeply when engaged in decision-making. This becomes a mental shortcut to help us arrive at a decision faster than we would have otherwise. But it could lead us to either focusing on the wrong risk or ignoring a more imminent risk.
Battling the Availability Heuristic
The challenge, then, is to figure out either how to push back against the availability heuristic when making parenting decisions or use it to our advantage. One way to do this is to encourage yourself to dig a little deeper and ask additional questions about the decision that you may be making. Think about alternative scenarios in question the probability of the event.
You can also keep some of your fears in check by using the availability heuristic to your advantage. Push yourself to recall other times where the results of your fear did not come true. Worried about airline travel? How many times have you been on a plane without there being any problem? By recalling these past events, you create a collection of anecdotes that can outweigh the single anecdote that is helping to create the fear.
When there is time, of course, learn more about a situation. Explore what the actual probability is rather than asking the hive-mind in a Facebook group. Take your more serious parenting questions to places with expertise like your pediatrician or a parenting expert. Having this information can help you make a better parenting decision.
Remember, in the end, the availability heuristic isn’t always wrong. It exists for a reason and can be helpful. Sometimes, we don’t have the information and we just need to make a decision. Just be aware when you do.