The Availability Heuristic and Marketing

What is Availability Heuristic Bias?

Do you think the United States crime rate this year is higher or lower than last year? Almost 70% get that wrong, and it’s due largely to our Availability Heuristic bias.

Availability Heuristic is our brain’s shortcut for assessing risks and rewards in decision making. Our tendency is to presume that anything we can visualize is more probable to happen.

This may be why something considered impossible and improbable is called the ‘unthinkable’ or ‘unimaginable.’

The more vivid and plentiful our memories or mental pictures of possible good or bad outcomes, the more likely a good or bad outcome feels.

Even when we know the statistics, this ‘gut feeling’ creates a strong bias in our decision making.

 Your Availability Heuristic Hysteria

Availability Heuristic lets the act of seeing a plane crash on the news a week before boarding their flight make even the most frequent of flyers cringe on takeoff. Your odds of crashing remain the same, but that primed visual is still strong enough to cause some pause.

Availability Heuristic is part of what makes slot machines seem to have better odds when we see other people winning, or why swimming in the ocean has been absolutely terrifying since 1975 (Jaws).

When we assess a risk or reward, we go to our mental library of experiences. The more vivid and plentiful the memories, the higher our perception of probability will feel. These experiences can be our own or from external resources – stories of friends’ experiences, news media, even television and movies. It can even draw on our own wild imaginations, building a vivid possible outcome.

Our own language sheds a bit of light on our brain’s tendency. Do you ever hear yourself saying something along the lines of ‘she shouldn’t have done that, I can already see how this is going to turn out?’

Your predicted outcome likely felt much more probable than it actually was.

Businesses can use Availability Heuristic to increase the perception of risk, or the likelihood of success in their marketing messaging and sales strategies.

Availability Heuristic bias is our strong tendency to think and act based on that ‘gut feeling’ a vivid mental model gives us, often in spite of the actual level of risk.

Crime and Availability Heuristic

Read any newspaper’s website or watch any news channel you’ll get a sense that crime is a relevant and ever-present part of our American life.  In fact, a majority of Americans have responded in annual polling that US crime rates have been increasing since 2000, with a slightly hopeful 2001.

As it turns out, we’re precisely wrong.

When it comes to judging crime rates in our country, are we the people correct?

While polls showed that more and more people had thought crime was rising over the decade, with a small decrease in 2001, the truth was that crime was actually falling since 2000, with a small increase in 2001.



In the case of crime rate perception vs. reality, it’s generally held that the presence of crime in media helps build volumes of mental images of possible ways crime can happen to us. This in turn causes a bias towards believing that crime is becoming more prevalent while it’s actually declining.

There is also an interesting correlation on election years, when much media attention shifts from crime to politics. In these years, less people believe that crime has increased, and more think it decreased.

If you own a security or insurance company, those crime perception stats will serve you well, but how can any business make use of this essential part of our decision making process?

Using Availability Heuristic for Business

For Considering and Negating Objections

If you’ve ever wondered why a customer didn’t make the ‘logical’ decision, it’s very likely that they’re operating with a different library of experiences and stories than you are.

You’ve seen your product and service help dozens, hundreds or millions of customers. Each of those experiences forms your mental reference library for risk assessment. Until you understand your audience’s experiences and background, you’ll likely raise an eyebrow when they choose the ‘illogical’ choice.

While you envision minimal risk, they may be recalling the last employee who chose an underdog vendor, or the sinking feeling of buyer’s remorse from their last large personal purchase.

For sales teams, overcoming objections is nothing new. However, by trying to take into account what the mental warning flags are and calming them with your own library of stories and experiences, you start to rely more on insightful communication and relationship building and less on playing the cost game.

Stories and Mental Pictures

Consider weaving storytelling with the use of strong imagery into to your marketing messaging and sales tactics.

Heuristic bias is part of what allows fear-based selling to instill and play on our nightmares. It’s also what allows motivational self-improvement authors and coaches to show us a way to a better ‘us.’

If your product or service solves a problem, be upfront in talking about that problem from the context of how you solved it.

Similarly, if your product or service is transformative, share the story of your happy customers and their ‘after’ photos of accomplishment.

On the aversion (fear) side, term life insurance companies often ask ‘what would your loved ones do if you passed away today – unexpectedly.’

On the aspirational side, lottery advertisements might ask us ‘what would you do if you won the lottery?’

Think Stories before Stats

If stats alone were enough to shift our decisions, there would be no smokers, and texting while driving would be unheard of.

However, when you talk to the people who consciously choose not to smoke or drive distracted, it’s more often that they’ve personally seen a terrible outcome in themselves or somebody close to them. This experience provides a vivid picture with enough emotional charge to be remembered in vivid detail. – Rarely will they be able to cite a statistic.

The crux of heuristics is our ability to create or recall a vivid mental picture of a possible outcome. The more vivid the picture, the more likely the outcome tends to feel. Truly memorable stories can ‘stick’ as well as personal experiences.


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