Memory, Information Availability, and Judgment: How “What Comes To Mind” Can Hurt You

Think about the last time you had to make a judgment or decision without all the relevant information in your hands.  Maybe you were deciding which route to take to work.  Maybe you were considering which organizational program to fund or implement.  Maybe you were explaining why one group should get priority over another.  Since you didn’t have all the information you needed in your hands, how did you make your judgment or decision?

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If you’re like me, you probably used information stored in your memory.  We use information from our memory when we don’t have the information on hand, when the information doesn’t exist or would be expensive to obtain, or when we’re short on time.  These are often the contexts in which we find ourselves, so we frequently rely on information from memory to make judgments and decisions.  It should come as no surprise that our judgments and decisions are affected by how “available” the information from memory is to us.  That is, how quickly and easily the information “comes to mind”.

News Coverage That Biases Our Judgment

There are (at least) two things to keep in mind when you’re using information from memory to make judgments and decisions.  First, your perception of how frequently one kind of event occurs relative to another may be biased by how quickly and easily you can imagine multiple instances of the former event relative to the latter.  News coverage, because of its emphasis on sensational stories, is notorious for biasing people’s perceptions of the relative frequency of events.  For example, many people think certain types of events, like murder, cancer, and tornadoes occur more frequently than they actually do because they see those events highlighted by their local news program.  Less newsworthy issues like asthma and suicide, which receive less news coverage, are thought to occur less frequently than they actually do.

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Making Judgments and Decisions Based on Relative Frequencies

Second, your perception may be biased to the extent that you recall the number of occurrences of an event (i.e. frequency) rather than the relative number of occurrences (i.e. relative frequency).  This happens when you are comparing two groups based on a certain characteristic and you forget to consider the total size of each group.  For example, if you’re researching schools before deciding which school district to live in, you may read about the number of students taking AP courses in each school.  When you think about this information, don’t forget to take into account the total number of students in each school.  The appropriate comparison is the relative number of students taking AP courses in each school.  The same goes for similar comparisons, like between two cities and the number of crimes in each city or between two groups of workers and their ability to complete projects on time.  In order to make appropriate judgments, you need to compare relative frequencies.

Guard Against Biases for Good Decision Making

These two potential biases, which stem from using information we recall from memory, have important implications for how we allocate limited resources, including time, money, and labor.  To the extent that we use readily available but inaccurate information from memory or make comparisons based on frequencies rather than relative frequencies, we are more likely to make judgments and decisions that misallocate resources and are not in our best interests.  Whenever possible, use accurate information to aid your decision making process.  When those resources aren’t available and you have to recall information from memory, remember these potential biases and guard against them by asking for as many independent points of few as possible and rigorously questioning all your underlying assumptions.  By doing so, you’ll guard against these biases creeping into your reasoning and increase your chances of making a sound decision.

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