mental shortcuts that can wreck you, or save your ass
There's a term in psychology called 'heuristics.' In essence, when we talk about heuristics, what we're really talking about are shortcuts your mind takes on the path to understanding something in the world. In the instant classic Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman calls heuristics "simple procedures to help find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions." He notes that while we can intentionally apply a heuristic in the service of trying to solve a difficult problem--"if you can't solve a problem, but you see a solution to another problem, solve that"--our mind is constantly using other mental shortcuts of which we're completely unaware. They can be helpful--you can make instant evaluations--but they can ruin work too: what if your evaluations are wrong?
One of the most frequently used heuristics in day to day life is the availability heuristic, and I'd like to lay out it's advantages, pitfalls, and opportunities presented by awareness of its existence when you need to get work done in an affinity group, or a small team of any kind.
Is it "a little too easy?"
Kahneman defines the availability heuristic as "the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind." Like the other mental shortcuts under the heuristic umbrella, you're answering a hard question ("how many people will come to this march?") by solving an easier problem ("people come to marches we put on.")
When the availability heuristic has kicked in--which is most of the time, unconsciously--what you're really reporting as an answer to the hard question is just how easy it was for you to remember other things that are similar to what's being asked about.
This holds true more or less across the board:
- Notice how the incidence of 'suspicious packages' skyrockets after a dangerous event?
- Do you have trouble convincing people with arguments from history, data, and even your own lived experience if the person you're convincing has life experience that contradicts your point?
- Do you ever feel like 'you do all the work' on your team?
These examples represent the availability bias in action. When examples that support a viewpoint are more readily available to our immediate memory, we tend to believe that viewpoint without fully considering the most robust data available.
Now certainly the availability heuristic has its uses--there are instances when the conclusions our shortcuts lead us to are right, after all. But it's important to be on guard against the dangers of ignoring the information that matters to making your planning decision, or to playing a role on (or leading) your team. If you don't take caution at moments where an easy answer to a hard question presents itself--in other words, when your availability bias might be influencing your thinking--you run the risk of trusting instincts that are based on the past, instead of the reality of the world around you.
Otherwise, the resentful logic of 'I'm doing all the work' will start to sound like the truth.
Short-Circuiting the Shortcut
You can get around this. As Kahneman helpfully writes, "the proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it." Norbert Schwarz, a German psychologist, found in the early 90s that availability bias can be disrupted when the ease with which we remember instances that support our point is called into question. Put another way: to disrupt the unconscious bias the availability heuristic can give us, we have to be willing to question the conclusions we jump to by checking them against the available data.
If you feel yourself instinctively answering a hard question in the midst of 'going with the flow,' it's useful to double-check your thinking by carefully following and verifying your own logic, questioning at each step.
Being willing to question your own conclusions rigorously can seem like an obvious suggestion--but when the shortcuts that take us to those conclusions are so often unconscious, and the conclusions we come to can be so damaging to planning and team health, it's important to short circuit the shortcut as often as you can.
That way you'll know you're making the most justified call, and you can move forward on solid ground to carry on the work that matters.