Monday, November 4, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: The Availability Heuristic

This is one in a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 
The availability heuristic is "a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples." When the news media report night after night on incidents of violent crime, the public comes to believe that crime is on the rise even when actual crime rates are falling. Similarly, the likelihood that you will refuse to go scuba diving in Hawaii is a function of how easy it is to remember stories about shark attacks.

The availability heuristic also has a social dimension: the easier it is to think of someone within your circle who believes in something, the more likely you are to believe it as well. When you market to a tribe, building a strong relationship with one member of that tribe has an indirect impact on every other member.

This heuristic has a very strong "what have you done for me lately" aspect. If your brand has been in the market for a number of years, your customers have a series of mental associations with that brand, but the most recent associations are the ones that will most easily be recalled. If you lie to them tomorrow, it won't matter that you spent twenty years telling the truth; they'll more easily remember the lie and be disproportionately affected by that one incident. Conversely, it's never too late to do the right thing. You can resuscitate a brand by giving your customers a new set of positive experiences.

When it comes to content strategy, the availability heuristic means that you're not just dealing with your content and the claims it makes, you're also dealing with whatever happens to be resident in your customers' memory. You can be a passive victim of that, or you can engage with it. Are you asking them to overcome a challenge, such as get into better shape? If so, prime their short-term memory by asking them to recall incidents in which they faced challenges and succeeded in the past. Then, when you later hit them with the call to action, you've helped them feel optimistic about their prospects.

In short, the availability heuristic suggests a small revision to Nike's famous tagline:

"Remember how you did it? Just do it again."