Pitfalls of Leadership: The Availability Heuristic

You are a biased leader. There, I said it! The thing is, I’m biased too. People in general are prone to a number of errors in judgment, and while being aware of them is no sure fix against leading poorly, it’s at least a start. This will be Part One of a six part series on leadership bias; I hope our coverage of this topic gives you some tools with which to adjust your thought process the next time you find yourself needing to make an important decision.

ALPHABET SOUP

Let’s begin by having you name all the words you can that begin with the letter “K.” Go on, I’m not listening. How many were you able to come up with? Now, let’s have you name all of the words in which K is the third letter. How many could you name? If you are like most people, you found it easier to generate a list of words that begin with K – the words probably came to you more quickly and were more plentiful in number. But, did you know that there are three times as many words in which K is the third letter? If that’s the case, why is it so much easier to create a list of words that start with K?

It turns out that our mind’s retrieval process is far from perfect, and that a number of biases play into our ability to recall information (and thus, use that information to lead objectively). Our memory is better for things at the beginning and the end of a list (like the letter K), things that are scary, and things that are incomplete. If asked to assess the prevalence of Words Beginning With K vs. Words With K As The Third Letter, you likely would have picked the former because of this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism. Psychologists call this the “availability heuristic”, which simply means that we predict the likelihood of an event based on things we can easily call to mind. Unfortunately for us, the imperfections of the availability heuristic are hard at work as we go about our management responsibilities and make decisions that impact the business.

DUH NUH DUH NUH DUH NUH DUH NUH DUH NUH

Roughly five years ago, I had just recently married my wife and we had moved to the North Shore of Hawaii for a six month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in Paradise and were eager to immerse ourselves in all the local culture and natural beauty had to offer.That is, until I turned on Shark Week. For the uninitiated, Shark Week is the Discovery Channel’s seven day binge of all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over aeons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers (FYI – surfers look like seals from below). As the show nears it’s end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been overridden by the previous 58 minutes of fear-mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune and waders who had narrowly escaped with their lives. Heretofore an excellent swimmer and ocean lover, I resolved at the end of that week that I would not set foot in Hawaiian waters, and indeed I did not. So traumatized was I by the availability of bad news, that I found myself unable to muster the courage to snorkel, dive, or do any of the other activities I’d so looked forward to just a week ago.

JUST THE FACTS MA’AM

The parallels between a tourist surrounded by water watching Shark Week, and a leader glued to the latest Doomsday Prophet on cable news are almost too obvious to mention. Just as Shark Week is Discovery’s Sweeps Week darling, the dour and naysaying have become the bread and butter of the 24 hour cable news cycle. But whether your favorite talking head is bullish or bearish, the fact is that their opinion looms larger in your mind than it ought to, and impacts the way you lead your organization. To return briefly to my cowardice, consider the facts about the likelihood of a shark attack – the odds of me getting away with murder (1 in 2), being made a Saint (1 in 20 million), and having my pajamas catch on fire (1 in 30 million), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (1 in 300 million). My perception of risk was warped wildly by my choice to watch a program that played on human fear for ratings and my actions played out accordingly.

LIVED LEARNING

Obviously, learning about the availability heuristic and its contorting effect on risk perception is only worthwhile if we apply it in our lives as leaders. I suggest the following as a jumping off point:

Be an informed viewer – When you do choose to watch TV, grab a paper and pencil and make a note of every time fear-based, sensational, or cliffhanger (e.g., “Could your dinner kill you? Find out at 10!”) techniques are used to drive ratings and grab your attention. Television can be a valuable source of information, but should be watched with a critical eye.

Become a student – Do not rely solely on your preferred talking head or pet network to provide 100% of your decision-making data. Consult people of various dispositions, political leanings, and views on the economy. Seek out a diversity of opinions among team members and media and examine the assumptions underlying their various prognostications.

Source: http://incblot.org/uncategorized/leadership-fail/

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