When it comes to the availability heuristic, fluency seems to be the most important factor. The ease with which an example of something comes to mind matters more than the real world frequency of the event. Salient examples of people being pulled over by the police, of celebrity divorces, or of wildfires cause our brains to consider these types of events to be more common and likely than they really are.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares results from a study by German psychologist Norbert Schwarz which demonstrates fluency versus frequency in our analysis of the world. Schwarz asked participants to list six instances in which they behaved assertively, and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. In a second instance, Schwarz asked participants to list twelve instances where they were assertive and to then rate their overall level of assertiveness. What the studies show is that those who were asked to come up with 6 instances of assertiveness considered themselves to be more assertive than those asked to come up with 12 instances. Kahneman describes the results by writing, “Self-ratings were dominated by the ease with which examples had come to mind. The experience of fluent retrieval of instances trumped the number retrieved.”
The logical expectation would be that asking people to list 12 instances of assertiveness would give people more reason to believe they were a more assertive person. However, that is not what the study showed. Instead, what Kahneman explains happened is that as you are asked to pull more examples from memory, your brain has a harder time remembering times when you were assertive. You easily remember a few stand-out assertive moments, but eventually you start to run out of examples. As you struggle to think of assertive times in your life, you start to underrate your assertiveness. On the other hand, if you only have to think of a handful of assertive moments, and your brain pulls those moments from memory easily, then the experience of easily identifying moments of assertiveness gives you more confidence with rating yourself as assertive.
What I find fascinating with the study Kahneman presents is that the brain doesn’t rely on facts or statistics to make judgments and assessments about the world. It is not setting a bar before analysis at which it can say, more examples of this and I am assertive, or fewer examples and I am not assertive. It is operating on feeling and intuition, fluidly moving through the world making judgments by heuristics. The brain is not an objective observer of the world, and its opinions, perspectives, and conclusions are biased by the way it operates. The study suggests that we cannot trust our simple judgments, even when they are about something as personal as our own level of assertiveness.
I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.
Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.
These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.
“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”
Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.
The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.