Availability Bias, Diversity and the Crowd

Posted by Rebecca Buchanan on Sep 13, 2016 6:04:47 AM

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it is what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Josh Billings, 19th-century American humourist

We all like to believe that we make decisions or resolve problems based on facts, figures and rationale, but how often is that actually the case? To help us quickly and effectively decide what to do, the conclusions that we come to more often than not, are a result of mental shortcuts. In this article, we discuss one such shortcut – that of ‘availability bias’ – and how some of its negative impacts can be overcome for better problem solving.

Availability bias is a mental shortcut whereby we judge probabilities on the basis of how easily examples come to mind. Tversky (1973) provides the example of judging word frequency. If you take a word at random from an English text, do you think it’s more likely the word starts with K, or that K is its third letter? Tversky’s hypothesis was that is much easier to think of words that start with a K than words where K is in the third position, therefore most people would think the former is more likely. His tests validated this theory. In reality however, a typical text contains twice as many words in which K is in the third position than words that start with K. This same phenomenon causes us to overestimate the chances of all sorts of unlikely but vivid and memorable events; shark attacks, deadly diseases and winning the lottery.

So while these mental shortcuts can allow for quicker decisions, they may not always be the best ones, particularly in business. Take problem solving for instance: availability bias means easily-recalled solutions that recently worked in other situations may be selected over others that are potentially more appropriate or optimal. On an individual level, simply recognizing that we as humans have a tendency to rely on vivid, unusual and emotional events can help overcome the negative side of availability bias but on a broader, organizational level it’s all about diversity. Availability bias means that individuals with similar experiences - through their work, upbringing, lifestyle and education - will often have the same go-to solutions. Therefore diversify your workforce, you’ll get a wider pool of solutions and fewer of them accepted unquestioningly – ultimately helping you get the best solutions possible.

But organizations will always be limited as to how diverse they can be within their four walls.

True diversity can only really come from opening up problems, tasks and projects to the crowd – the global virtual workforce capable of bringing entirely new perspectives. Here resides people from all corners of the world with a hugely varied range of experiences, gained from working in different companies, industries and countries. The sheer number of people outside organizations can trump the proximity to the problem of those within them. The sheer diversity can help avoid being caught by ‘what you know for sure that just ain’t so’.

Is your organization interested in finding better solutions? Contact us today to find out how InnoCentive could help.

Topics: Innovation Insights

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