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The Availability Heuristic: Why Your Children Probably Aren’t Going to be Murdered

Journalist Lenore Skenazy is called a number of things: “Americans Worst Mom,” “A Heretic,” and, “Abusive.” Her crime? In 2008 she left her nine-year-old son go home by himself on the New York Subway. Her son’s solo trip was made famous by a New York Sun column written by Skenazy and it’s almost too easy to imagine her critics: up-tight mothers so overly protective of their children that they wouldn’t even think of letting them wait at the bus stop alone. You know, helicopter parents. As one recent article describes, they are the type of parents who “[buy] macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, [hire] tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,”… [and demand that] nursery schools offer mandarin.”

Can you really criticize overprotective parents?  They are, after all, only trying to ensure the safety of their children. But sometimes the numbers tell a different story. In regard to Skenazy’s “abusive” decision, consider that only about 100 people are abducted by a stranger every year, half of whom are eventually murdered. Factoring in that there are 50 million children in the United States, the annual homicide rate via abduction comes out to be one in a million. In other words, “if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.” Similarly, consider that, “more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic.” That is, every time a parent drives their children to school the chances that a child gets killed increases.

Unfortunately, the parents don’t usually buy these types of arguments; “those are just the numbers,” they might say, “they miss a larger point: don’t rely on statistics when it comes to your children’s safety.” But my beef isn’t with overprotective parents. The truth is, everybody does a poor job of distinguishing what is actually dangerous from what isn’t. This tendency stems from a cognitive shortcut Kahneman and Tversky call the availability heuristic. Availability describes our tendency to judge the importance or frequency of an event based on how easily the even is brought to mind. For example, in one experiment done by Paul Slovic, participants were asked to estimate the amount of people per 200 million who die annually from drowning, tornadoes, asthma and fireworks. He found that on average people believed that 1684 died from drowning, 564 from tornadoes, 506 from asthma and 160 from fireworks. Reality paints a much different picture: 7380 for drowning, 1886 for asthma, 90 for tornadoes and 6 for fireworks. It is not a coincidence that deaths from fireworks and tornadoes show up on the news more often than deaths from drowning or asthma. And that’s the problem – the media gives a false sense of what is actually dangerous in order to entertain their viewers (us).

There are negative consequences of these attention grabbing tactics. German cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer estimates that the year after the 9-11 attacks, 1,500 people died in car accidents because they chose to drive fearing that their plane might be hijacked. Add that up over the course of a few years and you’ll find that “the number of people who died by avoiding air travels was six times the number of people who died in the airplanes on September 11.” Similarly, did you know that you are eight times more likely to die from walking home drunk than driving home drunk, the chances of getting murdered from hitchhiking is virtually zero, and owning a pool is astronomically more dangerous that owning a gun.

To be sure, the availability heuristic is a vital cognitive resource. It allows us to quickly assess the frequency and importance of an event with little cognitive effort. Sometimes this is a good thing; famine, wars and natural disasters get a lot of media attention for good reasons. But sometimes availability gives us a false sense of reality, which the examples outlined here illustrate.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability Cognitive Psychology, 5 (2), 207-232 DOI: 10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eli #

    Great post. Adding to your point, I say that modern society lives in layers of delusions imposed on them not only by TV and newspaper news, but also social networking sites, to which so many are now addicted. Obviously, we prefer personal anecdotes and stories to cold hard statistics. We’re still very much the same cavemen that we “were.”

    November 14, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Mmm, interesting. What “layers” would you say that social networking contributes?

      November 14, 2011
      • Hi!I am a Brisbane boy, living in Seoul, and I was very happy to find your blog. Since my first visit to Korea about 3 years ago, I have been ficsanated by Korean food, to the point that it is just-about all that I cook. I have a dear friend that owns a little restaurant near my home, and though I could never match her 12-hour stock, I do ok. But I go home in a few months and I was getting a little depressed at the thought that I may have to give up my new-found love of Korean food (and most of all, my beloved ecb2œeab5adecža5). But if you’re making a go of it, then I think I will be fine after all.Keep up the good work!J

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  2. Ryan #

    I would guess that actually carrying a gun is still more dangerous than swimming in a pool, maybe I’m wrong though. Anyways, this blog is cool. I have read a bit about cognitive biases, but hadn’t learned of this one yet. I like having scientific names for the different types of bad arguments people make.

    November 25, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Availability is a good cognitive bias to start with! Look forward to reading more of your comments, Ryan.

      November 25, 2011
      • Hi Ben & Shrimp, we had a chat yesterday at eat st. Check out erpuciely, where people can find great food in the capital. It might be something for you as well. It’s all about people sharing their passion for food and actual food entrepreneurs. Let me know if you like it so i can give u the access key.Keep doing what u guys are doing!Cheers,elco

        August 1, 2013
      • Dear SueI am still working on my Dakgalbi. I had a vistoir from Korea and she suggested that I marinate the chicken for 1/2 a day. Otherwise her recipe was like yours. I did this but I did not like it as much as your recipe.Also, two tablespoons of red chili pepper paste seems an awful lot, how hot does it make your chicken? I have located a Korean grocery. They sell perilla oil. Would you use this oil in your recipe?Philip

        August 31, 2013
      • This is crystal clear. Thanks for taking the time!

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    I could see the use of availability heuristic being used not only in attention grabbing headlines but also in securing purchases in advertisement. For example, if a commercial came on the television advertising a new home security system, and it told you that six thousand homes in your neighborhood have been robbed in the past two months, would you buy it?

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