Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Availability Heuristic.

Right now I'm reading two-time Pultizer-finalist Steven Pinker's new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined."

It's a tough book to read. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard and he's not above getting a little technical and statistical for a "lay-reader" like myself. Still, the reviews and praise this book received upon publication was so fulsome that I bought it the day it came out.

According to people who know about these things, "Better Angels" is on the inside track to win perhaps the 2012 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer. I read a lot of books that have won such awards and winning them is not like winning a daytime Emmy or even a Clio. The quality is pretty high.

Pinker's book analyzes about 6,000 years of human history and shows that, contrary to how we all feel, we are currently living in the least violent period in human history.

Here's a bit from what I read last night that I think has bearing on our industry today.
He says, in a section called "Was the 20th Century Really the Worst?" "The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history" is a cliche that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true? The claim is rarely backed up by numbers from any century other than the 20th, or by a mention of the hemoclysms (blood floods) of centuries past. The truth is that we will never really know which was the worst century, because it's hard enough to pin down death tolls in the 20th century, let alone earlier ones...."

Now, here's the part that has a bearing on what we say and do in advertising and it involves a concept propagated by Nobel-Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky. It is the notion of "the availability heuristic." In short, "the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is."

So, we think of the 20th century as the bloodiest because it has the most bloodshed that we remember.

Likewise, we issue proclamations like "nobody watches TV," or "mobile websites are vital to a brand's success," or "Facebook 'likes' are the new currency" because they're the latest things we remember seeing, hearing or experiencing. They may have no relation to reality other than "recency."


Sean Peake said...

The availability heuristic can also be called confirmation bias

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Jeff said...

A friend of mine who has a doctorate in psychological (look at the brain on Angela) and I were talking one day. I asked her how come you'll never notice a particular car until you own one - then you see them coming and going. She explained that it was the availability heuristic. Suddenly it was all so clear. Look! Another freakin' ES350.

Jeff said...

That should be doctorate in psychology. See why I don't have one?