Thinking, Fast and Slow. 12 The Science of Availability

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

We are presented here with the availability heuristic. This is a particular case of the substitution trick that our system 1 does and that we have already seen several times previously through the book. When trying to assess the relevance or frequency of a certain category, what we do is simply try to recover instances from our memory of that category and consider that the easiness of retrieval corresponds the frequency of that category.

Such a procedure, as all substitutions, is prone to biases because retrieval easiness may not equal objective frequency in the world for that category for a lot of reasons. The availability heuristic has been studied in depth and presents some curious characteristics. First, it is not necessary to retrieve any instance from our minds. System 1, before any retrieval, generates and intuitive guess of how easy the retrieving process may be and constructs the substitution judgement upon that guess.

It seams that, in the process of retrieving, it is much more important the easiness of retrieving than the number of instances retrieved. This creates the paradox than subjects of an experiment ask to generate 12 instances of that category label it less frequent than those who are asked to generate only 6. The point is that the 6 additional instances are much more difficult to retrieve. This difficulty surprises our system 1 (who is not a genius in making predictions) and influences the final assessment. And the interesting twist of it all is that this effect is erased if subjects are told that the background music that they are hearing impairs their ability to concentrate. Then the number of instances retrieved happens to be decisive because retrieving difficulty is explained by other reasons. This is another example of system 2 resetting system 1 expectations.

And this is our only hope. To learn how, even imperfectly, use our system 2 to tray to control the actions of system 1, because for most daily tasks, system 2 cannot simple work.

It is this, or we just stop worrying about reality altogether Gorgias style:

Nothing exists;

Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and

Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.

Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.



5 thoughts on “Thinking, Fast and Slow. 12 The Science of Availability

  1. Yes, the availability heuristic is quite impressive: it clearly shows the difference between how we actually think and how do we imagine our thinking process. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found myself considering the likelihood of something based on the availability of remembered instances, but I’m sure I do it a lot under the influence of system 1.
    On Gorgias:,well one has to process the paradox: would a real sceptic ever try to convince someone else that knowledge is impossible? What would be the point?
    It is like that letter a woman send to Bertrand Russell advocating solipsism (the philosophical theory that states that I can only be sure that I do exist, but not anyone else). The woman told Russell that she found solipsism the most rational theory and wondered why there wasn’t so many more solipsists out there…

  2. Biases, biases! Anchors, surrogate questions, confirmations… Biases everywhere!! You know? Just the other day I was talking to a friend who is no fool. The subject was the educational methods of two parent that have decided to raise their three children in an unsual way: no TV, carefully selecting their activities, lots of homeschooling, self-built excercises on astronomy, plants, history and what not… The friend, prompted by this information, stated, in an authoritative voice: “This is the road to disaster!”, “This spells doom!”, “These parents are going to suffer when their children abandon them!” and so on…

    … I positively know that this friend has enjoyed and is currently rereading Kanemah’s book. So I thought: “Ah! system 1″… and started probing gently to wake up system 2: “Why are you so sure?”, “Where is your evidence?”, “Well, perhaps it is an unusual strategy, but the outcome does not need to be a disaster”, “You are telling us that your disapprove and that you would not engage in this kind of education, but that is a different issue”…. and I went on and on. To no avail. Funny, right?.

    I was tempted to say “This is your System 1 doing the talking”, but I did’t. I strongly suspect that this would have induced a radical change of attitude, but we will never know.

    I of course stopped short from that obviousl hint because there was a more tempting temptation: to write this comment.

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