Author: Jordan Birnbaum
“What’s your availability?” It’s a question that sends most of us directly to our calendars (where many will find evidence that we spend way too much of our lives in meetings).
Yet the meaning of the word “availability” can differ in nuanced but important ways. In our calendars, it means there’s nothing there. In the grocery store, it means there’s something there.
In the world of classical economics, availability measures the ease of access to something. After all, easy or difficult access to a product or resource plays a major role in planning and decision-making.
But the world of behavioral economics doesn’t focus on products or resources. It focuses on how memories, beliefs, attitudes, environments and other cognitive factors affect human decision-making and behavior. And in this world, too, availability is hugely important.
The availability heuristic was first identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1973. It describes a “mental shortcut” by which the cognitive availability of memories or examples (aka how easily something comes to mind) directly affects how human beings perceive the frequency and probability of that thing occurring.
For example, people are likely to consider a bad flood as much more likely in the immediate aftermath of a bad flood. This is because memories and examples of that flood are so easily available to them. Years later, those same people would judge the likelihood of a bad flood as much lower, merely because the memories of the prior flood would no longer be as vivid or common. (By the way, if you currently find yourself thinking about flood insurance and advertising, you’re not alone.)
These findings matter because they do more than prove that human beings are, by nature, poor intuitive statistical thinkers. They provide insight into how human judgments and behavioral choices are being made, right now, by everyone.
If we know that cognitive availability drives perceptions of probability, then we know that whatever is front of mind for people is likely to hold a disproportionate sway in their perceptions and decisions in any given moment.
Thus, the availability bias consistently demonstrates that decision-makers give preference to information and events that are more recent, more memorable, or were observed personally.
The availability bias is often discussed in the aftermath of financial crashes. Investors’ experiences with the markets during financial bubbles (housing, tech stocks) drive irrational expectations and flawed analyses of probability, leading to the shock experienced with a crash.
The availability bias describes why we continue to buy lottery tickets despite having virtually no chance of winning. Because the winners of lotteries are typically announced with great fanfare, examples of lottery winners are readily available in our minds, thereby making the prospect of winning the lottery feel much more probable. (It isn’t.)
The availability bias can dictate what we do or don’t notice when we walk down the street, depending on what’s already on our minds. While there are so many different ways in which the availability bias affects us, they all contribute to the effectiveness and widespread use of one technique in particular: priming.
Priming is a strategy to make an idea more readily available so that it can influence decision-making at a later point. As an example, imagine I showed you a picture of a ship, and then asked you to complete the following word: _OAT. You’d probably say “boat.” But now imagine I showed you a picture of a jacket first? Then you’d probably say “coat.” Now imagine a petting zoo! Or a castle with water around it! (You get the idea…)
So, what do the behavioral economics of availability and priming have to do with human capital management, or more specifically, organizational culture (aka “the way things get done around here”)?
I am so glad you asked! (You always ask the best questions!)
If there is only one thing to remember about availability, it is this: whatever is most recent is usually most influential. That means that organizational culture is being driven largely by whatever has been happening most recently, most saliently and most memorably.
This is why developing an organizational culture is not a linear event with a finish line. It requires ongoing management to correct trends that threaten to undermine it. Because if those trends continue unabated, they become the new culture.
Culture is getting set and re-set every day, all over the organization, whether intentionally designed or not. And that culture is ultimately determining our organization’s performance by shaping how people behave.
So what can we do about it, practically and specifically? We have to make sure that we keep the ideas and experiences that form a healthy organizational culture easily available to our employees. They have to see instances of healthy culture rewarded, and instances of unhealthy culture corrected. They have to be primed with the ideas that matter most to driving the behaviors we want to see. And this needs to happen every single day, so that in any given moment of truth, what’s available to our people is what we always intended.
Jordan Birnbaum is VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at TalentX, an ADP Venture. In his role, Jordan is responsible for the integration of behavioral economics into software design and marketing communications of new talent-based products. Jordan has more than 20 years experience as a start-up specialist and entrepreneur, as a Founder / Senior Vice President at Juno Online Services and Founder / CEO of The Vanguad, Los Angeles. Jordan holds a BS from Cornell University and a Master’s degree in I/O Psychology from NYU.