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Availability bias

Published on 25 October 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

The availability heuristic is an uncoscious process by which our brain substitutes one (difficult) for another (easy) one. One answers the easy one, retrofits it to the difficult one and: presto! One’s self-affirmation is once more comforted. The conundrum has been solved.

The internet has just forwarded me this question:

If you knew a woman who was pregnant,
Who had 8 kids already,
Three who were deaf,
Two who were blind,
One mentally retarded,
And she had syphilis,
Would you recommend that she undergoes an abortion?

Oh yes – the answer is: If you said YES, you just killed Beethoven.

Note the switch: since one would not kill Beethoven, by implication one should not advise abortions under any circumstances.

This is a non sequitur. The correct reasoning would have been: The chances of the baby having Beethoven’s talents are say one in a million (insert your figure – it is probably far less). In order to “secure” myself one Beethoven, I’d have to allow one million babies to be born. The possible gain should be weighed against raising and supporting one million (hopefully healthy, but distinctly non-Beethoven class) babies and their offspring.

The question does look different now, does it not?

Family planning is a tough question many families confront: whether to give few children more chances or scatter them over more children. The decision is hard enough without stacking the cards by intimating that every child may be the next Beethoven…

Let me conclude with a quote from BASTIAT:

1.1 In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

1.2 There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

1.3 Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

“economist” is best taken here to mean decision-maker in a context of materiality.

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