The availability heuristic

It’s true, you learn something new every day. Yesterday, I learned about the “availability heuristic.” As the definition above indicates, the availability heuristic says that people will make judgment calls based upon the data that is most available to them, regardless of what other data and relevant facts reveal.

This reminded me of the words of an artistic director back in my dance days: “You’re only ever as good as your last show.” Your last show is the one people remember best and are talking about the most, so that’s the one people judge you on.

The availability heuristic is also behind the idea that, if you repeat a lie long enough, it will be regarded as the truth. In the words of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” But here’s some irony. Goebbels didn’t actually say those words. The only reason why people believe that he said them is because they’ve been so often attributed to him. The availability heuristic.

The availability heuristic reminds us that narrative is a powerful tool, which is why people work so hard to control it. Now more than ever – when we can so easily cloak lies in digital camouflage, and repeat them over and over again across the world at (literally) the speed of light – we must cultivate vigilance and healthy critical thinking. It’s what will save us from the equally toxic extremes of oppression on one side and anarchy on the other.

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