The Availability Heuristic

Logical thinking, and how to do it

“What we’re facing in Iraq now with Isis is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.” – David Cameron, 29 August 2014

A common cognitive bias is the availability heuristic – this is the tendency to create a picture of the world using the elements that most easily come to mind. When assessing risk we will most likely give much more attention to sensational dramatic events than to more commonplace, but less spectacular, happenings. Striking and emotive stories stick more in our mind causing us to ignore, forget or downplay the larger, but more abstract, picture presented by statistical evidence. Repeated media reports of violence will lead to people thinking that the world is much more dangerous than it actually is, since violent acts leave a vivid and quickly recallable picture in the mind, this being one of the reasons that acts of terror are committed in the first place. To avoid falling foul of this heuristic we need to remember that events do not happen more often just because we can think of them more readily, we should be prepared to question any initial conclusions that come to mind.

So, whilst media coverage and public perception of terrorist threat appears to be on the rise, is the UK really facing a greater terrorist threat than it ever has known before? According to the Conflict Archive on the Internet, a website that documents ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, since the late sixties there have been 36,000 shooting incidents and over 10,000 bomb explosions, with more than 3,500 people killed, 1,707 of them by the IRA. So whilst it is true there has been a recent upsurge in Islamist inspired terrorism, this has yet to reach levels anything like those previously experienced, the total death count from Islamist inspired terrorism in the UK is currently less than 60.

Yet there has been an area in recent years that has seen a rise in deaths, but as it is largely hidden from view its presence weighs little on the public mind. Excess winter deaths (the amount of deaths occurring in winter months compared to the average amount of deaths in non-winter months) are at a 15 year high. Between December 2014 and March 2015 there were almost 44,000 of these excess deaths – the largest annual rise in almost five decades. Part of the reason for the increase has been put down to the flu vaccine being not as effective as in previous years but the background story is one of poor housing, poverty and pensioners who can’t afford to pay for heating.

So rather than being at risk from an unprecedented threat of Jihadi terrorism, it is the more mundane features of society, such as inadequate provisioning for the elderly that are the real killers. But as these victims die silently and in private, and because of the availability heuristic, they are unlikely to come to mind when thinking about threats to life.


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