Availability Heuristic

Let’s face it, the majority of people don’t do research. They don’t understand research. In their minds, they don’t truly understand what it means to do research. They were never taught how to do research. Therefore, anything involving the use of research, including public policy, science, higher education, history, technology, law, and medicine are all subjects for which they have- at best- a constrained knowledge.

To be fair, this is true for any activity. Have someone explain parachuting or banking or welding that has never even seen the activity. Or maybe they saw a 5 second clip. Better still, have them explain in detail the steps it takes to parachute, or process a loan, or weld a thin metal to a thick metal. They aren’t going to know what’s really going on there. This is about as much as most people actually understand research. And naturally, knowing little to nothing about an activity means in one’s mind, it’s fairly easy to imagine it in the simplistic way you think it happens.

This is not to say they don’t have a picture in their mind, it’s just that the picture is entirely wrong, cartoonish if you will. I’m not saying these people are stupid, indeed they may be generally intelligent folk. But the information they have in their own head, based on their own experiences, is all they have to draw from when understanding concepts, forming beliefs and making decisions. This is the Availability Heuristic.

Availability is a heuristic whereby people make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind. It is just another naturally occurring function of the brain that helps humans come to quick conclusions. It’s a good thing. But it has a dark side, and that is the ability to make a decision that feels right based on incomplete information. This is most true in situations that are complex, or involve large populations of something.

Since most people don’t understand research, or what good research even looks like, it is the Availability Heuristic that informs their decisions. And the worst part of it, is even if you explain the research, it still won’t sink in for all the same reasons. Without a mental picture in their mind of how these things are put together, they have to default to what they know. If we ask a 10 year old to sit through a lecture in advanced surgical techniques and then explain what happened, they will bumble through it, use a couple of the words they heard, and get it all wrong.

You know who these people are. They are the same people that bitch about “scientists” changing their minds all the time, or mumble through an explanation of how any particular politician is the reason for something happening. They sound like Donald Trump explaining things. Keep this imagery in your head as you consider the implications of the Availability Heuristic

Now you might be saying, “Hey, Spartan Atheist, YOU only have the information in YOUR head, based on YOUR own experiences, to draw from when forming beliefs, making decisions, and writing this blog.” I mean, that’s how thinking works, right? So what’s the beef? I’m glad you asked that question. You see, research is how we overcome the limitations of the Availability Heuristic. That, and understanding that there is an availability heuristic to account for.

If you understand how research works, why it is important, and are able to add the information gained from research to your consideration, it makes a huge difference. There are lots of questions that just simply can’t be answered by our own personal experience from gun issues to homelessness or poverty, birth rates, religiosity, quality of life, police issues, economic issues, domestic and foreign policy, and even local community issues. Without research, we are just using our personal experience and projecting that onto everyone.

It’s okay to not know how to jump out of an airplane if you recognize that before you do, you should get some instruction on the matter. And we all understand this on some level. Everyone knows that making a decision with only half of the information is bad. What they don’t realize is when they only have half of the information. They THINK they are using all the information, because it is all they can recall personally. Research results, instead of being seen as a complete picture, are dismissed as anecdotal, or even worse as somehow biased.

Understanding research also equips a person with another useful skill- spotting bullshit. People that understand research are able to understand the limitations of research, but also the power of research. Both are important. It’s harder to be fooled by shoddy statistics, unsupported statements, or inept analysis of the data when you understand how they work.

Welders will quickly spot a fake welder. This isn’t because welders are “better” than the rest of us, they just know what they’re doing based on education and job experience. When you really understand a subject, a fraud is easy to spot. Fake military veterans are easily called out by actual vets. Fake cops are called out by… well, everyone. And people that claim to obtain knowledge through research but are actually making shit up are easy for me and others that have done reasearch to see.

Preachers are frauds. They are easy to spot. Their claims do not, in any way, match reality. Preachers will proclaim loundly that they “know the power of prayer”, while in reality prayer is an abject failure as an activity. They claim god will reward or punish, but rewards and punishments are metted out in ways completely detached from their hypothesis, and quite in line with reality. How do you know a preacher is lying? Their mouth is moving.

And here is the point of this entire article. If you were born into a church, raised in that church, attended services in that church, were baptized by that church, attended religious instruction at that church, listened to the lies from your preacher in that church, your family were all in the church, and many or most of your friends, community members, and co-workers are in that church, I’ll give you a quick guess as to what your Availability is. Everything in your life is tinted by the heuristic of that church, no matter if the facts and research and reality say otherwise. So it’s really no wonder even intelligent people get this wrong.

But that’s why I’m writing this. If you are an intelligent person that has a religious view, your belief is not based on reality. It is based on your availability heuristic that has been skewed so heavily toward this view that reality no longer penetrates. You have had hundreds of thousands of lies or bad information presented to you over the years, and that is the information you immediately have come to mind. Had you not experienced an environment full of other believers, you would never have logically come to your belief through study, or research, because your religious beliefs are just stupid. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you.

But if you are an intelligent person, then this article entirely makes sense to you, and you are now equipped to begin asking questions about your faith. Does your god really do all those things you have been giving him credit for? Or are you just selectively giving your god credit when none is due? What mechanism if any does god change anything at all in our real world? Why does the next church down the road and the ones around the world all believe in something different, and what does that say about our gullibility? Is religion, any religion, actually a benefit to a society?

I’ll let you do the research yourself, but the answers are no, yes, none, because it’s all made up, we are very susceptible, and no.

The Spartan Atheist

1 thought on “Availability Heuristic

  1. As you say Spartan the indoctrinated from birth have absolutely no idea how stupid they and their religion is. I do think however for the intelligent suckers that are roped in and indoctrinated later in their lives it is more to do with emotional feelings about death, their inability to confront it as a fact of life and the insecurity they feel without believing someone is watching over and comforting them. This should be classed as a kind of mental impairment or disease like compulsive gambling, drug taking and alcoholism or like the paranoid such as the hypochondriacs.

    Liked by 2 people

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