We all have tendencies of thought, patterns that influence our thinking.
These are often referred to as cognitive illusions or biases. But perhaps the root of all biases is availability bias — meaning we give the most credence to what we can most easily recall. If we remember an occurrence quickly without much effort, we find it perfectly suited for whatever the question is before us. For perfect examples of this, look no further than your relationship with your spouse or significant other.
People in relationships often share the burden of household responsibilities. One of the main areas of contention between couples is “fair share” — as in, “Is the other person doing his or her fair share of the chores around here?”
The conflict occurs when one person believes he is doing more than the other. What might really be happening, though, is that both individuals are falling prey to the bias of availability. What you remember, and therefore exaggerate, is the last time you did the dishes, or you took out the trash, or you made the bed. In your mind, you think you always do something, and the other person never does it. See any potential problems?
Availability Bias at Work
Availability bias also can cause problems at the office, as your brain substitutes one question for another. Let’s say your vice president of engineering asks you to recommend the best-qualified supplier to provide exhaust systems for your company’s new engine. And in the instant of the conversation you say, “Well, we should go with Wilson’s Exhausts.”
What may have taken place in your mind is not a careful analysis based on price, reliability, quality and suitability for this particular engine. Rather, you might just have recommended any exhaust system provider you can remember. Your brain may have substituted the question, “Who’s the best?” with “Who can you name?”
Availability also most impacts us when we are trying to gauge the relative size of a category or the frequency of an occurrence. How large is the market for red laser wall levels? (Huge! I used one this weekend!) How often are Wall Street traders arrested for illegal activity? (All the time, I read an article about another one yesterday.)
The insufficiency of the reasoning in these examples is obvious, but it is the rare individual who will submit to the more difficult task of finding out the actual statistics that would answer either of the above questions. Many people simply don’t want to work that hard. We take the path of least intellectual effort. We’re human.
Positively Leveraging Availability
How can you leverage this concept of availability bias to ethically win the heart and mind of your target? It’s imperative to keep the value of your “ask” in front of your target. Time dims people’s positive memories, so you must find ways to maintain your expertise, your value and your shared experiences.
A reminder email, revisiting a key point casually through conversation, or a communiqué augmenting or amplifying your position with a new piece of information all work beautifully.
Remember that there is a balance between keeping your contributions top of mind and … well, stalking. Persuasive professionals know the difference and rarely cross the line.
Frequency certainly impacts one’s ability for recall, but other factors leading to availability bias include dramatic events (winning an important award or surviving a tragedy), intense personal experiences (receiving accolades or suffering public embarrassment), vivid descriptions (created by using language or graphics) and a related notion called the “recency effect” (in which people remember the last thing they heard on a topic).
When you can summon dramatic public events, do so. If your company is generating positive press regarding a purchase or other strategic move, that is the time to reach out to new prospects. If someone undergoes an intense and negative experience related to your “ask” (“The trade show was terrible! I had to set up the booth until midnight and then I had to work the show for nine hours the next day! I was exhausted when speaking with prospects.”), that is the time to push for agreement on your objective (“See? This is exactly why I’m recommending we ask the board for budget dollars for either more staff on site or expanded outsourcing!”)
Use vivid descriptions instead of just numbers: “The new retail space we’re recommending could house AT&T Stadium,” instead of “The space we’re recommending is one million square feet.”
And, of course, before someone makes a key decision, keep the recency effect in mind. Literally, the last thing you want the decision-maker to hear is your input. People remember — and give added weight — to the final comment they’ve heard on the topic. You want to be the last person whispering in their ear.