Understanding the impact of the availability heuristic
A friend was telling me a joke: “This bloke walks into a pub,” he began, but to be honest I zoned out almost immediately. All I could think was, well – who is this bloke? Have I ever met him? What’s he like? I’m guessing, by the time he spends at the pub, that he’s got a bit of a drink problem. And I know he’s not a well man because he’s always at the doctor’s. Eventually I zoned back in to find my friend looking at me expectantly. I made an effort to laugh politely, but the way he stomped off made me wonder if perhaps the conversation had moved on a bit further than I thought, and I’d just laughed at something entirely inappropriate.
I mention all this because I’ve noticed of late that I’m being bombarded by increasing numbers of supposed facts – primarily Brexit related – all prefaced with the words ‘they say’. But who are these mysterious ‘they’? Do they have any real inside knowledge or qualifications to make their own statements more worthy than anybody else’s, and if so why don’t they reveal themselves? It’s one thing to quote general sources for public opinion – the man on the Clapham omnibus and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells spring immediately to mind – but quite another to cite ‘facts’ without ever checking their legitimacy. Or does adding the preface ‘they say’ free the orator from any responsibility to verify the content?
Now, perhaps deep down we all acknowledge that when we start a sentence with ‘they say’, really we know that we’re just passing on hearsay, but it’s often an interesting way to open up a debate. There’s a problem, however, and it has to do with a phenomenon called the ‘availability heuristic’, and it’s how we tend to make decisions as human beings. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that associates the greatest importance to the things that can be most readily recalled. If something can’t be recalled easily, then it can’t be as important as something which can. Where that becomes key as part of the ‘they say’ discussion is when we consider that the easiest thing to recall is frequently the last thing we heard, so in effect the implication of the availability heuristic is that we tend to be most influenced by the most recent piece of information, regardless of the reliability (or otherwise) of the source.
It seems to me that politicians make use of the availability heuristic all the time: answering a direct question with a response that does actually address the question tends to be less important than simply ensuring you have the last word on the matter. And while putting out phrases and slogans that are blatantly misleading – plastering £350m across the side of a bus, for example – may in the long term come back to haunt you, in the short term they play to mental processes that are influenced by the availability heuristic, and they rely on the tendency of people to pass off any statement as fact by prefacing it with ‘they say’.
As we lurch toward October and the increasing likelihood of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, I’m braced and ready for a deluge of authorative-sounding statements on how good or bad (depending on your point of view) things are going to be. Fortunately, none of the uncertainty in the meantime is having any impact on the economy. Or so they say.
Mark Simms Editor