The availability heuristic recognizes our tendency to think that what we see is all there is – we are not aware of the information we don’t have, and yet what we don’t know and can’t see matters enormously.
We go through life with the impression that we see the world as it is, create stories based on the incomplete sense we have of what is real, and are inclined to doubtlessly believe these stories that feel more whole than they really are.
Daniel Kahneman tells a story of he and his wife having dinner with friends. Later that evening, they were discussing the visit, and Kahneman’s wife described the man with whom they had had dinner as “sexy.” She then said something that struck Kahneman as bizarre: “He doesn’t undress the maid himself.”
Kahneman turned to his wife and said “What on earth are you saying? What do you mean, ‘He doesn’t undress the maid himself’?” What she had actually said was: “He doesn’t underestimate himself.”
The story illustrates how our brains work. It never occurred to Kahneman (who has made this kind of thing the focus of his whole working life) that, because “He doesn’t undress the maid himself” was such an unlikely thing for his wife to say, she hadn’t said it. No, he heard her say it. He knew what she had said. The only question in his mind was why had she said such a crazy thing.
Our brains produce some interpretations rather than others. Once the story is there, it feels real whether it is or not, and we tend to respond accordingly.
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