How ease of recall biases decisions
I recently read a book, I believe it’s titled Thinking, fast and slow, that talks about the various cognitive biases that humans have.
One of the biases that resonated with me very strongly is the tendency of the human brain to replace difficult questions with ones that are easier to answer.
I was particularly interested in the fact that the brain tends to replace frequency questions with ones about ease of recall unconsciously.
For example, if you ask someone to decide whether there are more rivers or mountains, they will most likely judge the category that they can most easily recall examples of to be most frequent. If they can remember the names of mountains more easily than the names of rivers they will judge the former to be more common, and vice versa.
This is problematic because it means that you are likely to consider what you know well more prevalent than what you are not familiar with.
For example, if the news media always highlights crimes committed by a certain minority and doesn’t pay much attention to the crimes committed by the majority, your brain will be wired to consider that that particular minority is prone to violence.
Even if this isn’t true, and the majority is much more likely to commit violent crimes — in terms of total number of crimes committed — the fact remains that your brain will judge frequency of crimes to be correlated with the ease of recalling crimes by each group. Since the media provides you with more examples of the crimes performed by the minority, you will believe that they are more violent.
A consequence of this is that the media can unconsciously perpetrate bias in society — I will not consider deliberate perpetration of bias, since that is not within the scope of this post.
Another consequence of the tendency of the brain to equate ease of recall with frequency, is that people in a team can feel that they are doing more work than other team members.
This may cause resentment, and may not always be true. Of course, it is always possible to have unbalanced workloads, but in many cases people judge the frequency of their work to be higher than that of their teammates because they can more easily recall instances of their work than they can recall instances of work performed by others.
This also affects married life, you may assume that you are doing more chores just because you can more easily remember what you did than what your partner did.
Ever since I read this book, I’ve been careful in my role as a manager and a husband and father to avoid falling into this pitfall. Whenever I feel as if someone on a team is beginning to feel resentful of the work assigned to him/her, I gently remind them of all the good work that their teammates are doing.
Without making it too obvious, just thanking the teammates for the tasks they’ve done (listing them is a good idea), will allow other teammates to recall the work of others and, thus, at least partially, blunt the effect of this bias.
In my personal life, whenever I begin to feel resentful of the chores I have to do, I try to deliberately stop my knee jerk reaction and to consciously think of all the things my partner has done. This helps me keep perspective of things.
So the next time you judge that you have done more work than someone, or that a particular segment of society is more violent than others, or that foreign products are more common than local products in your country, or anything else that involves estimating frequency, ask yourself one question: Is this the result of the ease of recall bias or not?
Think critically about the answer to that question. If you realize that your judgement is being clouded by the ease of recall bias, stop yourself from making rash decisions that are not based on facts.
I recently read a book, I believe it’s titled Thinking, fast and slow, that talks about the various cognitive biases that humans have. One of the biases that resonated with me very strongly is the tendency of the human brain to replace difficult questions with ones that are easier to answer. I was particularly interested…