Surviving Availability Bias in Our Decisions

Availability Bias

The man behind the counter placed a pair of glasses on my nose and suddenly split his leg wide open, like baby giraffes do. Baby giraffes, whose neck is not long enough to reach parts of a tree, gather food from the ground. But instead of bending the knee, they split wide open their front legs so that the neck can reach the ground. Grown up giraffes also do a split to drink water. It was a Sunday morning and I was in an eyewear store to get a new pair of glasses. The salesman, a tall man, much taller than my five feet six inches, was taking measurements on my selected frame. That moment, when he split his legs to bring his eye level to mine, it reminded me of the giraffe. The man was measuring the centre of my progressive lens. Now to understand the centre, one must understand the way progressive lens are made. Progressive lens are the lens that helps you see clear sight both for far objects and near objects like. But a lens comprises physics. It can’t be merged into one. So there are bifocal lens which have a clear line demarcating the lens for far vision from the lens for near vision and then there are progressive, the seamless lens where you do not see a line dividing a far vision, a near vision. Both merge in the centre for intermediate vision. Intermediate vision is where you look straight, not down, not far into an object, at a closer distance like a computer screen. The centre point is significant because it depends on the shape of your frame, how the frame sits on your nose and the centre of your vision. It is the ultimate personalisation in a progressive glass that is a necessity. It is measured by both machines and opticians to arrive at an accuracy level.  At the store, I had gone through machine measurement and here I was, in front of the tall, gentle-like-giraffe salesman, in a split position to come down to my eye level. He had made a mark on my glass with a blue marker pen. 

Progressive lens

This was my second trip to the store, an old chain of eyewear. Nearly six years ago I was here to get my first pair of progressive glasses.The between years, from the first one to this one, took me to a new age, online-offline integrated eyewear retail that had mushroomed all around in the city and screens. They had made the second one for me and were quick to replace my frame and lens when pandemic restricted services. It was all easy-peasy, until a prolonged neck stiffness took me to physiotherapy sessions and I circled back to this eye-wear store to treat my neck. My neck and shoulder have been ruined due to hours of being on the computer and due to the error made in my progressive glass where the centre was not in the centre. It was meant to look at the computer screen straight, while I had been lifting my neck to get clear vision from the bottom of the lens. 

That Sunday morning, I had shared this challenge with the optician at the store. They had just taken my eye measurement through a machine. The good part of the machine is that it makes you less judgemental about yourself. Have you ever sat on an ophthalmologist’s chair where he tries minutely differing lenses and you get confused which one is the clearest. So in a way it was good that the guys used a machine to measure pupil’s centre, eye movements etc through a machine. But it was not enough, as here I was, against a counter, looking straight wearing trial lenses and he, on the other side, in a split position, marking on my lens. He took three measurements. Two differed so he used a blue and red pen to mark it. To verify, he called another colleague- a man of a similar height of mine, to see which one was accurate. The man announced a color. But they were still not satisfied. So they called another gentleman, in a uniform which clearly designated him as a senior of all other salesmen in a crisp white shirt with a tie, while others were people wearing blue. This man had to stand on his toes, in a tippy toe way to be at my level. One color mark on my lens was pronounced the winner. From a giraffe split to a straight standing man to a ballerina tip toe, I had men measuring my lens and it’s centre or the fitting height. 

Here I was, a customer amongst two-three trained salesmen, perfecting their skill on the progressive lens and reminding me of how my biases failed me. 

In today’s Habits for Thinking let me bring the focus to availability heuristic. In simple words, a heuristic is a shortcut in decision making.  

What is the availability heuristic?

The availability heuristic describes our tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future.

Availability heuristic has been extended to machine heuristic. In a study, people who trusted machines were significantly more likely to hand over their credit card numbers to a computerized travel agent than a human travel agent. A bias that that machines are more trustworthy and secure than people—or the machine heuristic—may be behind the effect, said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory and affiliate of Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience (ICS). “This tendency to trust the machine agent more than the human agent was much stronger for people who were high on the belief in the machine heuristic,” said Sundar.

This is what happened to me where my lack of knowledge regarding progressive lenses coupled with machine heuristic, read trust in technology, led me to ignorance about wrong fitted glasses. 

Excerpt from my previous article on : 
What is Availability bias: All of us have the tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future. Our memory is stronger of things that have vivid narration. This availability of our thoughts impacts our decision making.Studies have shown that victims and near victims spend on insurance purchases and protective action after disasters. Another example is you tend to handover a new project to a team member who has a clean recent record and not to an equally competent member who committed a small error recently. This is something similar to recency bias in investing where one tends to take investment decisions based on recent memorable events.

Availability heuristic in the case of trusting that a new age eyewear company is following all the processes is a natural phenomena. For example,  Amazon has made us believe that delivery and return is the easiest thing in e-commerce. So when a delivery is delayed or a return is cumbersome from another e-commerce business, we tend to get upset because our availability bias makes it tough to accept the delayed delivery. 

The first step is to understand the existence of availability bias as mentioned above. The second step is to think methodically about it.

1. Ask for Facts to avoid availability bias:

Availability bias means the mind retrieves the information that is easiest to recall. The mind anchors the latest memory. The last event, like a failure of a recent project, can stay in memory and may make you ignore the entire year’s performance of a person.  In such a case, an effort to take a look at the entire year’s report about the performance needs to be anchored around. 

A habit of presenting your mind with long term facts helps in clearing the bias. 

2. Practice Inversion Thinking to deal with availability bias:

Incase of high impact and irreversible decisions, practice inversion thinking while making decisions. For example, making an investment decision is sometimes colored by availability bias. One example can be the entire team thinking on similar lines. Inversion helps in questioning areas that could have been missed. (Read more about inversion thinking here)

Three men at the eyewear store took turns to remind me that my availability bias, the recall of online and technology trust, didn’t let me question my ill-fitted lens. It is a natural human behaviour.  It happens with us many times. We think the coach we have for the team is the best and knows the job, because he has been a star coach for so many others. We think that this stock has to be bought during the IPO because it is all over the newspapers. We think of what is available for us to think. 

To drink, giraffes first have to splay their forelegs and/or bend their knees, and only then can they lower their necks to reach the surface of the water. To protect the giraffe’s brain from sudden changes in blood pressure when it lowers its head to drink, it has valves to stop the back-flow of blood and elastic-walled vessels that dilate and constrict to manage flow. These are survival of the fittest adaptations. 

We humans need to have thinking adaptations too to survive. Availability bias is a mental model that needs to be worked upon consciously, through processes, to survive decisions.

Survival GIraffe

SHIFT, the online-offline course, next Cohort is starting 16th August. See the introductory video here. Reach out through this form for details/queries:

Leave a Reply