The Availability Heuristic - Why You Worry About the Wrong Stuff

Take a moment and imagine the person you love the most. Perhaps it’s your spouse or partner; maybe it’s a beloved parent. If that person is near, I’d like for you to put the book down and go give them a big hug. Tell them how much you appreciate them and all the reasons why you love them. If they aren’t proximal, say a small prayer of thanks or think good thoughts about the positive impact they have in your life before you return to reading. Go on…

…You back now? Ok, great, welcome back.

Now, I want you to realize that the person you’ve just spent the last few minutes idolizing is more likely to kill you than any stranger, terrorist or bogeyman. In fact, your appendix is more likely to off you than Al Qaida or ISIS. We have a tendency to fear all of the wrong things. We’re scared of high profile, low probability threats like terrorist attacks and home invasions, but we routinely ignore more mundane but probabilistic hazards like not wearing a seatbelt or eating unhealthily. In general, we stink at assessing risk in a number of predictable ways – we don’t have all the facts, we’re moody, we’re control freaks, we think we’re unique, we follow the crowd and we are scared of losing. I’d like to touch on each of these in turn and discuss how they impact your ability to live the best kind of life.


Quick! 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, name all of the words you can in which K is the third letter. How many could you name this time?

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 than there are that start with K? 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 a number of biases play into our ability to recall. Psychologists call this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism 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 attempt to gauge the riskiness of different ways of living.

In addition to having a memory better suited to recall things at the beginning and the end of a list, we are also better able to envision things that are scary. I know this first hand. Roughly six years ago, I moved to the North Shore of Hawaii along with my wife for a six-month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in paradise and eager to immerse ourselves in all the local culture and natural beauty it had to offer. That is, until I watched “Shark Week.”

For the uninitiated, “Shark Week” is the Discovery Channel’s seven-day documentary programming binge featuring all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over eons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers. As the show nears its end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been over- ridden by the previous 60 minutes of fear mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune (“Gotta get back on the board, dude”) 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 had so looked forward to just a week ago.

In reality, the chance of a shark attacking me was virtually nonexistent. The odds of me getting away with murder (about 1 in 2), being made a Saint (about 1 in 20 million) and having my pajamas catch fire (about 1 in 30 mil- lion), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (about 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.

The easy availability of financial news (especially the scary kind) paired with the human tendency to overweight danger means that many investors walk around in a state of near-panic all of the time. All the while, they are ignoring things that are truly damaging wealth over time like bad behavior, excessive fees, a lack of diversification and inadequate savings. It is only by understanding the means by which our brains can play tricks that we truly grasp that an expensive mutual fund is more hazardous than a recession just as surely as a hamburger can be more harmful than a shark. 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out THE LAWS OF WEALTH by Dr. Daniel Crosby of Nocturne Capital. 

Affect Heuristic - How Emotion Can Get the Best of You

One of the reasons psychologists can charge $200 per hour to ask, “how does that make you feel?” is because we have become great at putting fancy-pants labels on things that would otherwise be very intuitive. Take for instance the tongue twisting “affect heuristic,” which is simply a reference to our tendency to perceive the world through the lens of whatever mood we are in.

For example, when giving a seminar on risk assessment, I often ask participants to write down the word, that if it were spelled phonetically, would be “dahy.” Go on, write it down and don’t over think it. It turns out the way you spelled the word has a lot to do with the kind of day you are having. Those that spelled the word as “die” may need a hug, while those that spelled the word “dye” are probably doing fine.

Ask someone having a bad day (those that wrote “die,” I’m looking at you) about their childhood and they are likely to tell you how they were chubby, had pimples and never got picked first for kickball. Conversely, ask someone having a good day about their childhood and they are likely to recall summers in Nantucket and triple dips from the Tastee Freeze. Memory and perception are moving targets colored by our mood, not infallible retrieval and evaluation machines through which we make unbiased decisions.

So what is the moral of all of this psychobabble? Think back on the last time you went shopping when you were hungry. Once you’ve brought that to mind, think back on the contents of your shopping cart. If you’re like me, you probably had a whole mess of HoHos, DingDongs, Nutty Buddies and Diet Coke (you don’t want to get fat, after all), but nothing very healthy or substantive.

The same rules apply to any life decision requiring risk assessment; if you try to make decisions when you are happy/sad/angry/in love/anxious/worried/euphoric, you are likely to end up with a life full of junk. When speaking to investors about the affect heuristic, I borrow an acrostic from the addiction literature - H.A.L.T. - which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired. The 12 step and other programs encourage those in recovery not to make decisions when they are in any of the emotional states described in H.A.L.T. and this advice is just as sound for investors. You do not view investment risk independent of your emotional state and so making long-term financial decisions in a short-term elevated emotional state should be avoided altogether. 

To learn much more about the intersection of mind and markets please check out The Laws of Wealth by Dr. Daniel Crosby - HERE